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How ballots are hand-counted

By CURTIS KRUEGER

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 11, 2000


When more than 100 workers and elections officials gather today in Volusia County to hand count presidential ballots, they will use a process that is painstakingly slow but designed to arrive at the most accurate tally possible.

Workers will divide into teams of two. One Democrat and one Republican will be allowed to stand by and observe them.

The first worker will sort through all the paper ballots from a given precinct and divide them into four piles: Al Gore, George Bush, other and questionable. The second worker will group each pile into stacks of 20, with a rubber band around each stack. Then the first worker will count the cards again to make sure there are no errors.

That will make it easy to count the votes for Bush and Gore. Then the questionable ballots will go to the county Canvassing Board, which will make decisions on them. The Canvassing Board, which oversees election procedures for the county, consists of two county council members and a judge.

Volusia County uses a ballot in which voters darken an oval beside a candidate's name, much like a Lotto ticket or a standardized test, and the results are read by an optical scanner. Some likely judgment calls the Canvassing Board may need to make: What if a ballot appears to have markings for two presidential candidates? What if it has a mark beside a candidate's name, but the voter didn't fill the oval in properly?

In all cases, the board is supposed to make its best effort to determine what the voter intended to do. (More information at: http://www.volusia.org/11-9-00.htm) During a normal election night machine count, the optical scanner records the votes on each ballot, and also for the entire precinct, which are later transmitted via modem to a central computer.

Hernando County uses a similar system, but its recount was much quicker. That's because the paper ballots were not read a second time -- either by the scanner or by people. For the recount, the county simply re-added the data that had been collected at each precinct.

Optical scanners are far from foolproof. If a voter puts a check mark or an "X" in the oval on their ballot, the scanner may not read that mark, because the entire oval is supposed to be filled.

"There are several problems with optical scanners that any election administrator needs to be careful of and cognizant of," said Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, a Washington political consulting firm.

One is that ballot printing needs to be very exact -- if the ovals aren't printed in exactly the right place, the scanners won't read them. "They've improved in terms of their reading capability, but that still is a potential problem," Brace said.

In some counties that use the optical scanners, including Volusia, poll workers have been known to color in the oval for voters if it can't be read by the machine. Volusia workers don't do that anymore, said Holly Smith, county spokeswoman.

The hand recount is similar in counties that use punch cards and card readers, such as Broward. In that county, which plans a hand count Monday, the Canvassing Board also will review ballots to make decisions on questionable cases. A likely scenario: a card with a hole that was punched, but not all the way through, making it unclear if the voter really intended to choose that person.

"You have to decide if you can determine 100 percent" the voter's intent, said Deborah Clark, supervisor of elections in Pinellas County.

The Pinellas supervisor's office conducted a hand recount of the St. Petersburg mayoral election in 1993.

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