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Punch card ballots have worn out their welcome here


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 2, 2000

Vice President Al Gore and whiny Joe Lieberman want us to stop everything and count 10,500 ballots from Dade County and another 3,300 from Palm Beach County.

They ignore the other 166,000 votes that didn't count in the remaining Florida counties where the counting machines determined that no one voted or voted twice in the presidential race.

It may be that a lot of people didn't vote in that race -- no one seemed very excited about any of the candidates until we got down to counting. Or it may be that the infamous "chad" wasn't punched out enough for the counting machines to pick up the vote.

The truth is we will never know who got the most votes in Florida. Those punch card ballots that are so prone to error, they change each time they are put through machines that count. That's because the chad gets loose and becomes "flying chad."

We can never go back to that moment in time on election night when the counting began.

The most we can get out of this experience, aside from someday determining who is president, is a decision to dump punch card ballots once and for all.

No doubt it will cost money to replace the system used in 27 Florida counties, but you can't really put a price tag on the anguish of not knowing who is elected or whether your vote really was counted.

Two states have banned the punch card system after running into the same sort of trouble that is playing out on a national scale.

Florida looks really stupid when put under a microscope. Other states had similar problems, but they haven't been exposed to the kind of media circus we are experiencing.

CNN, CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox -- all the big guys -- have pitched tents at the Capitol to look at our seamy underside.

We voted a month ago and still can't figure out who won. What could look dumber? I can tell you what would look dumber -- having this happen again.

U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson, an Arkansas Republican, was in Tallahassee with other visiting political types this week. He's introducing a bill that would provide federal grants to upgrade election equipment.

Florida should get in line. But fixing the problem is also likely to take money from the Legislature as well as county governments. County commissions, pressed to provide other needs, have refused to provide the money needed to upgrade the equipment.

The unreliability of punch cards has been a dirty little secret well known to elections officials around the state, but the people with the money didn't want to hear it.

In Pasco County, Elections Supervisor Kurt Browning asked the commission for about $700,000 to upgrade the punch card system in 1997. They summarily rejected the request.

Perhaps the 3,917 people in Pasco County who went to the polls and had their ballots rejected because the machines couldn't determine how they voted would like to say a word or two to the County Commission.

Perhaps all 179,761 of the Floridians whose votes didn't count would like to say a few words. If only we knew who they are.

The counties that used punch cards had an average error rate of about 4 percent -- ballots that were not counted in the presidential race.

Those optical scanner systems where you fill in a circle with black ink had error rates of less than 1 percent.

The highest error rate occurred in Union County, the only county that uses paper ballots and counts them by hand. It was 6.32 percent.

So much for accuracy by hand.

When voters go to the polls in November 2002, they should be able to vote using a system that works. Then we would really be able to tell you whether a governor named Bush won the election.

It's not to much to ask.



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