When Is A Vote Not A Vote?

As election officials in Palm Beach County, Fla. struggled with their hand recount of presidential election ballots over the weekend, they also grappled with which standard should be used to determine whether a ballot was properly punched.

During the manual count of votes representing one percent of the vote in that county, officials there changed the test to decide the validity of the ballots.

So, on Saturday morning, the county canvassing commission said it would count a vote if any of the corners of the bits of paper punched out of the cards - called "chad" - were punched.

But later that same day, the commission decided that it would instead use the "sunlight test" - if they could see sun come though an indentation, it would count.

About a quarter of the way through the counting, however, a commission member determined that the light test was flawed and told the others members to go back to the first test.

The change in procedures slowed down the hand count as board members had to go back and recount all of the votes previously counted using the new rules. In the end, the limited hand recount gave Vice President Al Gore a net gain of 19 votes over Texas Governor George W. Bush versus the machine recount last week. In the early hours of Sunday morning, the county canvassing commission voted to conduct a countywide hand recount this week, although one top county official vowed to try to block that move.

According to Palm Beach County spokesman Bob Nichols, there are five types of chad. The first three, which are counted, are:

  • the hanging door chad, where the corner is kind of hanging off;
  • the swinging door chad, with two corners hanging off;
  • and the tri, which has three corners hanging off
The two that are not counted:
  • the pregnant chad, which bulges but doesn't punch through;
  • and the dimple chad, or indentation
The so-called "chad" test was approved in 1990 by the county canvassing commission. It says that a chad "hanging or partially punched may be counted as a vote since it is possible to punch through the card and still not totally dislodge the chad," explained Nichols. "But, the chad that is fully attached bearing only an indentation should not be counted as a vote."

Palm Beach County is a Democratic stronghold and a major source of support for Gore. The process of simultaneous conducting manual and mechanical recounts was an agonizingly slow process.

Workers brought in silver metal boxes from four precincts, broke the seals and took the ballots out. Six teams of three counters and two observers peered closely at each ballot to determine who was voted for. Then they placed each ballot into separate piles.

About 30,000 ballots were rejected in Palm Beach County alone because they had two or more holes punched for president - or computers didn't detect any holes at all.

Palm Beach County Democrats also complain that te county's ballot was so confusing that many Gore voters mistakenly voted for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan. Florida election officials said on Friday that the ballot did not violate state law, as several lawsuits filed by Democrats contend.

In response to one of those lawsuits, a circuit judge on Thursday issued a preliminary injunction barring the county's canvassing commission from certifying the final recount results until a hearing Tuesday. On Monday, a federal judge will hear the Bush camp's request for an injunction against any further hand recounts.