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We should have seen the chad coming


© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2001

While we're tossing blame around for an election that made Florida a laughingstock, let me accept my part of the blame for what went wrong.

Not just me. All of us who write and report on government should be flogged with a wet noodle.

No, we didn't screw up the vote count, create the butterfly ballot, or turn away anyone who wanted to vote, but we didn't look hard enough at the process.

We didn't hear the muffled cries of elections supervisors around the state who have spent 20 years trying to get the Legislature to fix confusing laws and make their offices non-partisan.

We paid little attention to them when they proposed buying new voting machines that would make it easier to vote on systems that produce a more accurate count.

Oddly enough, this newspaper editorially opposed spending $705,000 to buy new equipment in Pasco County in 1997, despite pleas from Elections Supervisor Kurt Browning, who said it was necessary.

It's true that most of the supervisors didn't knock down our doors with tales of how bad things could be. Browning says they had to walk a fine line, trying to maintain confidence in a system at the same time they were trying to improve it.

"I tell people this system is good, accurate and dependable until you have a recount," Browning said. "Every election morning my prayer is that we'll have big winners, all landslides."

If we had spent more time looking at the process and exploring scattered problems in other places, we might have realized that our punchcard counties were disasters waiting to happen.

But we were too busy writing about the horse races between candidates and pressing for quick returns.

We displayed much more interest in President George W. Bush's youthful misdeeds and his old drunken driving arrest and the kiss former Vice President Al Gore bestowed on Tipper.

We spent hours and hours watching the candidates' every move and analyzing each misstep along the way. But we failed to take a good look at the ballots and the machines that caused trouble.

We paid little attention to the problem of recruiting good poll workers. With the average age of poll workers at 67 to 70, our counties are in constant need of new ones.

We took the right to vote and the ability to have those votes counted for granted. And we have always pressed for faster returns.

We were as shocked as anyone to see what happened in a really close race. It wasn't the close race that surprised us; it was our inability to determine the outcome that put us in shock.

Looking back, there were a few signs of trouble. An election gone wrong here or there, poll workers who weren't well trained and complaints from a few voters who were denied the right to vote because their names weren't on a list.

But we thought the problems were isolated. Had we looked beneath the surface, we would have discovered a systemic problem in dozens of places where punchcards are used.

A very thorough piece written by Ronnie Dugger for the New Yorker in 1988 described the punchcard system as "outmoded technology" and said there is no practical way to assure accuracy of the system despite its widespread use around the nation.

The New Yorker also quoted a Pennsylvania expert who described the system as "a security nightmare, open to tampering in a multitude of ways."

And there was this haunting phrase: "Recounts are impossible, for the program destroys the electronic record of each voter's choices the instant after it counts them," a fact we learned the hard way.

In the end we may look back on this awful election aftermath and see it as a good thing. I suspect the next election will be far better. And I am certain that at least one of us will spend a little more time looking at the process.

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