May/April 2001 |
Hanging Chads; Our
Man at the Great Florida Recount
BY: Baker, Russ
the media really need much justification for examining -- at this late date --
the ballots that were cast but not counted during the achingly close 2000
presidential contest in all-important Florida? The postmortem obviously won't
affect the outcome. Yet with confidence in the electoral system undermined at
home and America's reputation as a paragon of democratic voting damaged abroad,
an honest accounting of the public's will may be the right medicine. And no
price for starting our national therapy seems too high.
Actually, the price can start surprisingly low, as I found out during a visit to
Florida in early February. For under five bucks per hour, for example, I could
have purchased from Hillsborough County (Tampa and vicinity) the right to sit at
a table and watch as county employees held one ballot after another over a light
box, and scrutinized dimpled, hanging, and virginal chads to my heart's content.
Instead, being a nonpaying observer, I was made to peer from behind a
floor-to-ceiling glass partition as an electoral autopsy, with all the visual
appeal of a TV test pattern, unfolded.
Yet exciting or not, something historic was taking place. Ever since December,
when the Supreme Court halted a pending recount and gave George W. Bush a
537-vote Florida margin and the presidency, news operations have been fanning
out across Florida to examine the record. It's hard to recall when the media
have championed the public's right to know with quite this mix of breadth and
The ballot recount has prompted patient curiosity from the public and
understandable wariness from the GOP. Republican operatives, in fact, were
riding shotgun on the media recount efforts all across the state. As Governor
Jeb Bush told the Orlando
"There's been a declared victor . . . The election's over. So go ahead and
do it, but is that going to rewrite history? I don't think so. Should it rewrite
history? No. We're a nation of laws, and the rule of law prevails."
DEFENDING THE EFFORT
Participants are quick to defend the operation. "Journalists have done this
since the beginning of time," said Bill Rose, deputy managing editor at The
Palm Beach Post,
an early vote-count participant. "There's a story, it breaks, there are
lots of questions. Do you take people's word, or do you examine the documents?
There's no doubt the election is over. There's no doubt George Bush won the
election in the minds of the people who determine that. But there are doubts in
the minds of voters."
The Republicans probably need not worry. If the current exercise reeks of
anything, it is the perfumed air of propriety and moderation. None of the
various ballot inspection operations will dare to pronounce a "real"
winner in Florida. Even if it looks abundantly clear that Al Gore received more
votes than George Bush, these news outfits will not be making such a conclusive
statement. Instead, the idea is to create -- for the public, for posterity, for
those interested in reforming voting system accuracy, for academics and
specialists -- a permanent record of what happened in the polling booths. The
participants don't call this a "recount," but the building of a
database, an effort to "describe" each uncounted ballot as precisely
as possible, categorizing them by such factors as overvote or undervote,
one-corner-detached chad or dimpled chad with light coming through. Once the
totals for each category are in, they say, people can draw their own
conclusions. They can, if they wish, take into account the relative merits and
liabilities of different types of punch card machines with names like Accu-Vote,
Votomatic, and Data-Punch, and of various optical scanning technologies, and
ponder the efficacy of Martin County's old-fashioned lever-pull balloting and
Union County's good old manually counted paper ballots.
Some might call this a futile exercise, but the venture nonetheless made enough
sense to media organizations that more than a dozen of them, in concert or
individually, opted in. Luckily for this purpose, the election debacle unfolded
in the Sunshine State, which has one of the country's most liberal sunshine
laws, enacted in 1967 and inscribed in the Constitution in 1992 after a Florida
Supreme Court decision threatened the law.
The first organizations into the water were, not surprisingly, Florida-based. In
November, within days of the election, The
began making public-records requests for access to all "undervote"
ballots throughout the state -- ballots that were recorded as showing no choice
in the presidential race. The
Palm Beach Post,
meanwhile, launched its own limited effort in nearby counties. The Tribune
Company paper, the Orlando
undertook its own selective forays. (In addition, the conservative group
Judicial Watch began a statewide examination.) The state was a patchwork of
media legal challenges, with Herald
attorneys, in particular, bouncing from Sarasota to Dixie to Duval counties,
seeking injunctive relief to force reluctant county officials to comply with
quickly published its first findings on differences in optical scans, on
December 19, seven days after the U.S. Supreme Court halted all recounts.
Although twenty-six counties scan ballots right at polling stations and allow
voters to immediately correct any errors, fifteen others send the ballots to a
central county office where they are tabulated later, preventing voter
adjustment of unintended selections. In little Lake County, west of Orlando, the
found that more than 600 ballots had been disqualified not because of
ambivalence but over-enthusiasm: voters had marked the appropriate oval for
their presidential choice and
registered a second preference for the same person as a write-in. The scanners,
unable to distinguish between two votes for competing candidates and double
votes for the same candidate, negated the ballots. Conclusion: if the
double-entry ballots were counted, in Lake County Gore would have gained 130
votes. In all, the Sentinel
found what it calls a "possible" net gain for Gore of 366 votes in
fifteen small counties, plus 203 in its Orange County, and an additional
thirteen in Seminole. Sean Holton, special projects editor, emphasizes that
these are "probable," not definite. Still, by my math, that is 582
probable votes, enough to turn the election.
Palm Beach Post
jumped into the ballot-examination business it started not close to home --
despite Palm Beach County's globally televised ballot quandaries -- but instead
rushed two counties south to Miami-Dade, snatching a story from under the
Herald's nose. Fifteen days after the election, Miami-Dade had halted its
recount -- from which the Gore campaign had expected to pick up as many as 600
votes -- when canvassing board members were besieged by a noisy demonstration of
GOP staffers flown in from Washington. "We decided, heck, we gotta know
what happened there," said Bill Rose. Post
reporters watched as Miami-Dade workers flipped through more than 10,000 ballots
that had been rejected by machines. The
Post's story, which ran January 14,
reported the astonishing conclusion that a full Miami-Dade count would have
shifted by just six votes -- and to Bush,
And that was with a generous standard preferred by the Gore people, counting
anything at all with the slightest indication of preference: partially detached
chads, even simple dimpled chads. Two weeks later, The Post
ran a story about its own county, where, applying the same standard, it found
would have picked up 682 votes -- enough to reverse the election outcome. Even
so, Rose, like all the editors, was reluctant to characterize the findings,
noting that many other factors, including whether to accept improperly
postmarked or late absentee ballots, could have played a role. "This is an If
story," he said. "It explains why the Democrats argued so vociferously
to count dimpled ballots."
ENTER THE DRAGON
It wasn't long before leading non-Florida news organizations decided to jump in.
Representatives of The
Washington Post/Newsweek, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal,
Associated Press and other organizations soon joined forces, agreeing
during a series of conference calls and meetings to finance an examination with
the heft and scientific rigor one might expect from such outfits. After
initially sitting in on counting sessions where the Herald
was also present, the consortium went its own way. It hired a well-respected
not-for-profit organization, the University of Chicago-affiliated National
Opinion Research Center (NORC.) The consortium came to include news
organizations that had already conducted ballot inspections, including Cox's Palm
and the Tribune Company's South
would also join).
The 900-pound gorilla of Florida journalism, The
also participated in initial discussions with the consortium, but opted not to
join. The Herald,
with resources from its parent company, Knight Ridder, had already been moving
forward by the time the consortium held its first formal conference call. The Herald
had rushed to make public-records requests in all counties (an action that would
benefit the consortium as well). To handle the ballot inspections, the Herald
initially approached the Big Five accounting firms -- and was uniformly rejected
for what the bean-counters deemed an unnecessarily "controversial"
activity. A second-tier but still sizable accounting firm, BDO Seidman, did
agree to take on the job.
Tongues soon started clucking about why the Herald
had declined to join up with the others, an act that would have created
unanimity and hence added credibility to the consortium effort. But the Herald
was dedicated to controlling its own project, and it wasn't about to share
information with its main competitor. The Herald
told consortium members that it would not participate if the Sun-Sentinel,
an aggressive turf challenger based in neighboring Broward county, was included.
"We're highly competitive with them," explains the
executive editor, Martin Baron. "The consortium came to us and asked us what are
the terms under which there could be a partnership. We gave them an honest
response: We didn't feel we could be partners with everyone in the consortium."
was ultimately joined in its survey by USA
Soon, though, the Herald
faced more criticism. In January, Slate
published "The Miami
Blows Its Pulitzer." Writer Mickey Kaus chided the paper for not counting
overvotes, declaring "any recount that doesn't include the overvotes is an
incomplete recount." Kaus had pointed out that although the Herald's count
will certainly address the "real world" recount scenario, it won't
answer the important question of who really won the election. Kaus quoted The
Journal's Washington bureau chief, Alan Murray, suggesting that the Herald
took the "cheap" way out in counting only the approximately 60,000
undervotes rather than all of Florida's 180,000 disputed ballots, including
overvotes. The Miami paper, the argument went, was more interested in a scoop
than in getting the whole story.
This infuriated Baron, who said the Herald's point was to simulate the original,
court-mandated recounts (they revolved around undervotes only, which is all that
Team Gore had asked for) and not to predict what might have happened had
overvotes been included. And he saw a deeper problem with the criticism:
"Since when do people in the media think there should be only one source of
information? It's almost unprecedented. I'm not aware of another example where
media organizations think it's inappropriate for media organizations to embark
on their own projects." Baron argued that the Herald,
which won a Pulitzer in 1999 for investigating vote fraud in Miami, was once
again out front, publishing a raft of investigative pieces on everything from
poor-quality voting machines to evidence that more than 2,000 Floridians voted
illegally in November's election.
Still, the Herald
found it increasingly necessary to consider the overvote, and, three days after
telling me that the paper was considering "looking" at those ballots,
it ran its own "analysis" on overvotes, supported by a study by a
professor from the University of California. The professor found that "as
many as 1,700" voters in Miami-Dade invalidated their presidential ballots
because they mistakenly punched the chad below the one corresponding to their
By February, when I visited the first formal day of the consortium's recount,
was far ahead, having already polished off most of the state's undervote. The
consortium, though rushing late out of the gates and examining a far larger
number of ballots, came with superior financial resources and numerical
strength, as well as NORC's vaunted technical expertise.
While the Herald's work involved one accountant and one reporter in each county,
NORC would have multiple teams at a site, each consisting of three tabulators,
or "coders," plus a supervisor. Dan Keating, The
Post's database editor, said that having three people look at the ballots gives
the review more statistical validity. "We wanted to create the definitive
data source," he said. Requiring more than one person to examine each
ballot will also help illuminate the degree of subjectivity involved in manual
recounts, Keating notes. "The people at NORC are excited because they will
do their own analysis on inter-coder reliability, to see whether two people
looking at the same thing see the same thing."
But they were very privately excited. When I asked Kirk Wolter, NORC's senior
vice president of statistics and methodology, where the consortium planned to be
conducting ballot examinations in coming days so that the magazine might drop
by, he declined to say. The
Post's Keating, similarly echoing concerns of "a media circus," noted
that I couldn't be prevented from canvassing the individual counties to learn
where the consortium might be appearing next (a daunting task, given Florida's
sixty-seven counties) before grudgingly letting slip one location --
Hillsborough County -- out of six where NORC would be working that day.
When I arrived at the Hillsborough elections center, in an industrial park
surrounded by farmland, the NORC officials did not seem particularly glad to see
me, even though the feared media circus turned out to be one man with a pad.
From my notes: NORC deployed four teams to examine the punch-card ballots, which
had ballot position numbers but no candidate names. The teams assigned codes in
categories according to evidence of voter intent (as shown in the box on the
NORC'S shyness was more understandable later, when, after reading NORC's press
release about "producing the definitive archive of the disputed
ballots" and hearing them characterize their teams as highly skilled and
trained operatives, I learned that many of their coders were bored-looking
locals hired through a temp agency. Although the Sun-Sentinel's
Ward had described the methodologies as "mind-boggling," and
"quite complete," what I saw amounted to something less than that. I
was not permitted into the room where the ballot examination took place,
observing it instead from several feet away behind glass, but I could see that
although the examiners appeared serious and attentive, they seemed prone to the
kinds of mistakes we had come to expect from the original recounts. Several were
elderly, and one in particular seemed to have problems with her vision, standing
up from her chair each time to lean in for a proper look at the ballots.
In Pinellas County, meanwhile, one of the NORC coders was not up to counting
speed. Tina Harris, a GOP volunteer, claims the coder showed up late, reeked of
drink, and had trouble functioning. Julie Antelman, a spokesperson for NORC,
says she tracked down this GOP report and found that the coder "was not
intoxicated." She does say that he was let go "because his job
performance was not up to the standard." I spoke with four people who
worked near the coder, including two county officials. None noticed evidence of
drink. One coder said GOP operatives tried to get her to say otherwise.
Rounding out the imperfection of the process, I learned from Hillsborough County
staffers (and a GOP observer) that two different NORC teams had accidentally
examined the same precinct -- counter to the NORC methodology.
Notwithstanding all this, NORC will end up with three opinions of every single
ballot. Presumably, in the vast majority of cases, at least two of these will
agree, and will be a fairly good reflection of what the ballot actually looked
like. Each consortium member will then produce its own stories from the data.
HARK THE HERALD
The next day, in Brevard County, on Florida's Atlantic coast not far from Cape
Canaveral, I attended a Herald
count. Here, the atmosphere felt more convivial and relaxed -- but no less
rigorous. Michael Galy, a gray-haired CPA from BDO Seidman's Miami office, sat
next to a Herald
reporter, Phil Long. Four Brevard elections officials, all quite veteran and
including Fred P. Galey, the supervisor of elections, sat through the count.
While two GOP observers watched from a distance, I stood directly behind the Herald
Long, a thirty-two-year Herald
reporter, exhibited a preternaturally keen interest in every piece of paper,
even taking frequent if brief opportunities to quiz county officials about what
he saw on the optical scan ballots. He had good reason for caution: he didn't
even know for certain whether the putative undervote ballot he was examining had
or had not been counted in the first place, since undervotes had not been
separated from other ballots during the original election tabulation. At the
Herald's request (and on the paper's dime), Brevard County clerks had had to
examine 220,000 of them by hand, trying to find the 277 ballots that computer
records showed had not registered a presidential choice. This was something of a
guessing game. If county officials knew that a precinct showed six undervotes,
they could do their best to find six ballots that appeared to be undervotes, but
they would not be absolutely certain they had the right ones. Indeed, in some
precincts, they came up one or two ballots short.
Beyond noting which candidate the voter had appeared to prefer, the Herald
people were trying to figure out, by looking at the entire ballot, whether
questionable or stray marks in the presidential section were part of a clearly
intended vote. Their tabulation sheets offered the following choices: "No
mark; Underlined candidate; Circled candidate; Circled Bubble; Marked X, Wrong
pencil; Other." One column read: "Errors in other races: Mark Yes or
No" and left room for additional comments.
Here's a typical couple of minutes looking at ballots where voters did not, as
instructed, completely color in the oval "bubble" by their candidate
of choice: a ballot surfaced with an "X" in the oval for BUSH. Then a
ballot with a check mark in the oval for GORE. Then one where the voter had
written in "H Beckman" -- perhaps the voter's own name. Next, a voter
had circled the GORE oval. "Look, there again, the only error is in the
presidential race," Long commented. "They've done it right in the rest
of them." Another ballot had a write-in for "J Lennon." "Heh
heh," said Long, making a quick notation. "All you need is love,"
deadpanned Galy, the accountant. Next ballot.
Herald's effort, on the surface, might have seemed less
"scientific" than the consortium's, with Long potentially polluting
the process by talking with officials and interacting with the accountant.
However, whenever he did so, he seemed only to increase the probability that he
was describing the ballots with an understanding of how the county's machines
After the day's counting was done, Long described himself as thrilled to be part
of the effort, despite day after day of what seemed grueling and numbing work.
"I've been involved with a lot of big
stories," he said. "But this is an important
WHAT CAN WE CONCLUDE?
When the Herald
announces its findings (probably in March) and the consortium completes its work
and lifts its news embargo (most likely in April), the findings may chiefly
excite afficionados: professors, probability freaks, C-SPAN buffs, party
activists, all of whom may enjoy the gaming and number crunching from so many
different variables. But rather than ending the national discussion, the
examination is likely to spur further debate. Determining who really
"won" will not be possible without agreement over what constitutes a
legitimate vote -- something the counties themselves couldn't agree on, and on
which the media aren't likely to take a firm, unified position.
The exception will be if the least controversial ballot description categories
(such as chads with three corners detached) produce a decisive shift to Gore.
Citing human fallibility, the
Herald's Baron predicts differences between his
paper's counts and that of the consortium even when comparing undervotes in the
same county. "The notion that any one review is the definitive review
doesn't make any sense," he said, warning of the risks inherent in relying
on a single source -- as happened to the networks on election night.
In truth, the more journalists who can examine the business of voting, the
better for everyone. Perhaps the most useful thing to come out of this historic
media effort will not be numbers but technical observations that might prove
useful as the country goes about trying to reform the way it records votes.
Personally, I learned lots of things that hadn't been clear from the wave of
coverage right after the election. Like how, GOP protestations to the contrary,
few absentee punch card ballots had actually been altered with scotch tape or
other means. And I got to play an interesting little game with Earnest Williams,
the manager of the Hillsborough County Elections Service Center. After numerous
unsuccessful attempts to simulate a dented but not punctured rectangle, I
finally did it: created a pregnant chad. "Notice how hard you worked at
that," said a grinning Williams.
as we went to press, the Herald
printed a scoop that put Gore's strategy in doubt. Based on undervotes in
Miami-Dade, Volusia, Palm Beach, and Broward counties -- the only places Gore
had contested -- the former vice president would still have lost. The Herald
-- by choosing not to wait for its complete statewide results, and by headlining
the kind of definitive judgment that it had seemed to want to avoid -- could
claim a competitive victory. Still, that left the consortium with the bigger job
(and perhaps the bigger story): deciphering the will of the people.
Ballots were categorized according to evidence of voter intent:
* Blank (no mark seen);
* Dimpled chad, no sunlight;
* Dimpled chad, sunlight;
* Dimple with or without sunlight, off chad, within borders;
* Dimple with or without sunlight, off chad, on border above;
* one detached corner;
* two detached corners;
* three detached corners;
* four detached corners.