Who will be the next president of the United States? Chad may decide.
What is chad? It is the tiny scored portion of a paper ballot that voters punch out using a small stylus to indicate their preference for a candidate. If a chad is punched completely out of the card, counting machines register each hole as a vote. But sometimes the tiny pieces of paper stay partially or completely stuck to the ballots — which may make it impossible for machines to read them.
Hence, the controversial recount of thousands of ballots in several Florida counties that could decide who wins the presidential election.
There are a half dozen different varieties of chad, including pregnant chads, dimpled chads, tri chads, swinging door chads and, of course, hanging door chads.
A hanging door chad, for example, has one corner still attached to the ballot. A dimpled chad is indented, but still fully attached.
Chads were punched and partially punched all across the nation on Election Day, as several states use the punch-card voting system. But Floridian chads are particularly pertinent as election officials prepare to recount by hand, one-by-one, the more than 400,000 ballots cast in Palm Beach County.
Much Ado About Counting
That manual recount is set to begin Monday, but the chad controversy reared its head on Saturday as the county canvassing board tallied votes from four sample Palm Beach County precincts.
Florida election statutes state that, in a recount, the canvassing boars should try to discern the intent of the voter, when considering questionable ballots — but it does not specify how.
“The question is, what do you do? Does the chad have to be punched all the way out? Do you look at a dimple — is that enough?” Leon St. John, a Palm Beach County attorney explained Saturday. “It’s within the discretion of the canvassing board.”
In 1990, the Palm Beach County canvassing board adopted a procedure stating that a fully attached chad, bearing only an indentation, should not be counted as a vote, while a partially punched chad should be counted.
So, in the morning, it was decided that a ballot would be counted as a valid vote if at least one corner of a chad had been punched. But midway through the painstaking process, the canvassing board decided to go with the “light test.” Officials then began holding questionable ballots up to the light in order to determine their validity.
“Apparently, the test they were applying was if you could see light,” explained St. John.
If light shined through, it was counted as a vote; if there was no light, it wasn’t counted. It seemed a simple enough standard, but the problem with the “light test” is that a ballot with a chad that has only one corner detached may not allow any light through, even though, by the original standard, it should be counted as a vote.
“They … decided to not go with the light test, but to go with the test that’s reflected on the procedures where, if one of the four corners of the chad is detached, then that will be a vote,” explained St. John.
But what about the hundreds of ballots that were already subjected to the light test?
“They are going to go back and go through the stack of the questioned ballots from the first batch,” St. John said last night.
And so they did. And at around 2 a.m. ET, the new tallies for the four precincts were announced, adding 14 votes to George W. Bush’s original total and 33 to Al Gore’s. That discrepancy prompted the canvassing board to vote 2 to 1 in favor of ordering a recount for the full county.
“Win lose or draw,” joked former Sen. Alan Simpson, a Bush supporter, “the people of America sure as hell better wonder about the ‘sunlight test’ and how many dangled and how many hung and how may got pimpled or how many were pregnant and gave birth.”
The Gore camp has also demanded hand recounts in three other heavily Democratic Florida counties. The recount in Volusia County got underway Sunday morning; Broward County officials will begin a manual recount of ballots from three sample precincts on Monday; and Miami-Dade County officials are set to meet Tuesday to discuss the matter. All three counties use the punch-card system.
But the Bush campaign has gone to federal court to seek an injunction that would block any additional hand recounts. Former Secretary of State James Baker — who is overseeing the Florida recount on behalf of the Bush camp — says a manual recounts can make for an even more innacurate tally.
“How do you divine the intent of the voter on that voting card … with those little punch holes?” he said Sunday on NBC’s Meet the Press. “You’re divining the intent of the voter with respect to whether it has two chads hanging down or whether it’s punched or whether it has an indentation? I mean, that’s crazy.”
Warren Christopher, also a former secretary of state, is overseeing the process for Vice President Gore.
“These are local election officials chosen by the people in their counties — they’re doing the very best they can,” he said, referring to the Palm Beach County election officials. “I think it’s not very useful to parody what they’re trying to do.”
Machine recounts in 66 of Florida’s 67 counties showed Bush with a 961 vote lead statewide, according to the secretary of state. An unofficial survey of all 67 counties by the Voter News Service showed the Republican candidate with a 327 vote edge. The Gore campaign hopes there are enough ballots with unattached or “hanging” chads next to Gore’s name to give him the lead in Florida — and with it, the presidency.