Skip to comments.Chads still hanging around in 22 states
Posted on 02/15/2004 11:23:23 PM PST by Cincinatus' Wife
It is Election Night 2004. The presidential tally stalls in a near-tie. All eyes turn to a pivotal state, a rich source of electoral votes, where election supervisors scrutinize ballots.
Yes, punch-card ballots, the much maligned voting system -- dimpled chad, hanging chad, pregnant chad -- that symbolized Florida's botched election four years ago, politically paralyzed the nation for 37 days and altered the course of electoral history.
Punch cards may be gone in Florida, but chads still thrive elsewhere and are actually gaining favor in some quarters.
As many as 32 million voters in 307 counties in portions of 22 states will use punch-card ballots during the November general election, according to a study released last week.
Could that contribute to another electoral meltdown? Yes, experts say, possibly at the presidential level, more likely somewhere else along the ballot.
''I know there will be a close race someplace, and it will be this same issue that will be discussed,'' said Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services, a consulting firm based in Washington, D.C. ``Because of what took place in your state four years ago, it could become a front-page story again.''
The reason: It turns out that comprehensive federal legislation in 2002 to reform and improve the electoral system wasn't as comprehensive as many people believe.
The new law discouraged the use of punch-card ballots, but it did not decertify or otherwise outlaw them.
''Punch-card ballots are totally legal,'' said Dan Seligson, editor of electionline.org, a nonpartisan group based in Washington, D.C., that monitors election reform around the country. ``They can be used in perpetuity.''
And they just might be, given the rising controversy over touch-screen electronic voting systems like those used in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Some question the security of ballots cast on such systems and the absence of a detailed paper trail in case a recount is required.
Election officials in Ohio, a key battleground state with 20 electoral votes, recently delayed this year's planned replacement of all punch-card machines until questions about touch-screen systems are resolved.
Carlo Loparo, a spokesman for Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell, said that about one-third of Ohio's counties could still be using punch cards for the general election.
Other states in which some voters will use punch cards include Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
USE IS EXTENSIVE
Overall, 19 percent of the nation's registered voters could be punching punch-card ballots in November, according to Election Data Services, which specializes in election administration and conducted the study released last week.
'We're seeing a lot of concern from the public, which says, `Hey, we thought this thing was fixed,' '' said Brace, the firm's president. 'We're also getting a tremendous amount of concern from election commissioners who say, `I don't want to be the next Florida.' ''
To help ensure that they don't become ''the next Florida,'' election officials around the nation are trying to avoid another issue that caused headaches here -- inconsistent and unclear standards for determining the legitimacy of a questionably cast vote.
''In Ohio, we have uniform election standards, with very clear guidelines regarding the counting and recounting of ballots,'' Loparo said. ``Even when we have close races and recounts, things proceed in an orderly fashion.''
Here, in a nutshell, is how this situation developed:
The federal government's much-heralded Help America Vote Act of 2002 targeted punch-card ballots for replacement but did not mandate their replacement.
Among the 11 states that have eliminated punch-card systems since the 2000 presidential election: Florida, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada and New Jersey.
States or localities that choose to stick with punch-card ballots can do so -- although they are required to offer voters educational aids to help them properly cast those votes.
But the law did not include standards for those aids, which can range from prominent public relations campaigns to small signs attached to machines or placed elsewhere in polling places.
`PUNCH THAT CHAD'
Still, such initiatives can work. In Los Angeles, election supervisors launched a Punch That Chad campaign, urging voters to vigorously poke all the way through their ballots.
''It was so successful that it caused another problem,'' said Seligson, the electionline editor. ``They needed to buy a lot of new styluses because people were punching the cards so hard they broke the old styluses.''
Under the law, states that choose to replace punch-card systems or antiquated mechanical lever machines are eligible to apply for reimbursement from a $325 million federal buyout program.
But the buyout program is all or nothing. One locality in a state cannot take federal buyout money to get rid of punch cards while another keeps them. In addition, states can apply for a waiver that gives them until Jan. 1, 2006, to complete the replacement.
STILL IN USE
So, although Florida and those 10 other states rapidly deep-sixed their punch-card ballots, many states are still using them -- and some experts note that punch cards and other paper votes can be less susceptible to tampering than the systems designed to replace them.
Touch-screen and other electronic systems are known to experts as ''direct-recording electronic'' machines, or DREs.
''The DRE controversy is getting bigger and counties are hard-pressed to move forward when punch cards, to some people, look like a better option than DREs,'' Seligson said. ``If there's a problem, at least with punch cards you still can count the ballots and look at the ballots.''
And so, here we are again. Nearly one of every five U.S. voters will stab at chads again this November -- four years after Florida's election debacle.
''You know there's going to be a close race somewhere,'' Brace said. ``The question is: How far up the ballot will it be? If it's dogcatcher, then it's going to end up on Page 22 of the newspaper, but if it's farther up in the ballot, more people will pay attention.''
Said Seligson: ``Sure it could happen again. There are chances of a hurricane every year, but we don't get Category 5s every time. We do get Category 1s and 2s.''
Reports of dead voters and admitted multiple voters don't get much press either. Neither do any reports of the conviction of those who commit such vote fraud.