WASHINGTON - As harried Florida election officials comb through thousands of disputed ballots, allies of Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Gore are sparring over the best way to decide what voters really meant.
Election 2000 has turned into a feud over man versus machines.
Mr. Bush's camp contends that recounting ballots by hand is less fair and accurate than recounting them by machine and causes the “possibility for mischief'' in a charged political environment. Vice President Gore's allies counter that imperfect machines might miss legitimate votes that humans could catch.
Experts say there's no such thing as a perfect machine or an infallible human. But they say humans often have a better chance of correctly resolving persistent punch card problems at the center of the Florida maelstrom.
Former Secretary of State James Baker III warned Saturday on Mr. Bush's behalf that human error, subjectivity and decisions to “determine the voters' intent'' would “replace precision machinery in tabulating millions of small marks and fragile hole punches . Machines are neither Republicans nor Democrats, and therefore can be neither consciously nor unconsciously biased.'' He reiterated that stand last night.
But Mr. Gore and his allies counter that hand counts are used nationwide to resolve disputes about the voters' real views.
“There is a simple reason that Florida law and the law in many other states call for a careful check by real people of the machine results in elections like this one,'' Mr. Gore said yesterday evening. “The reason? Machines can sometimes misread or fail to detect the way ballots are cast, and when there are serious doubts, checking the machine count with a careful hand count is accepted far and wide as the best way to know the true intentions of the voters.''
Experts say some punch card votes can only be detected by humans.
“The best way, we have long believed, is the human count,'' said Lance deHaven-Smith, associate director of the nonpartisan Florida Institute of Government. “The reason is the nature of punch cards.''
Punch cards feature a square known as a “chad'' that a voter punches out when casting a vote. But chads don't always fall away easily. A half-punched chad can fold over or hang by a corner or two, appearing to detach but actually clinging to the ballot. Machines may fail to count these votes, but humans can tell the chad is supposed to be detached.
“If you looked at it by hand, you would see this thing is just hanging by a thread,'' Mr. deHaven-Smith said. “That's why a hand count is more accurate.''
Herb Asher, a professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University who has studied punch card voting, said machines simply don't catch all the voting errors.
“They've already done the machine counts,'' Mr. Asher said. “When you start looking at ballots or chads that have been punched but didn't fully fall out, you're not going to find those except by hand recounts.''
Mr. Asher found in a study of the 1978 Ohio gubernatorial race that one in 20 Ohio voters invalidated their votes because of multiple punches on the cards. His study did not include votes that were overlooked because of hanging chads.
Massachusetts and New Hampshire have done away with punch card ballots similar&tab; to those in Florida, citing concerns about reliability.
“Punch cards have proven unreliable and inaccurate and therefore do not conform to the standards of law,'' said Brian McNiff, a spokesman for Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth William F. Galvin. Massachusetts now uses a combination of voting lever machines, optical scanners and paper ballots.
In 1997, Mr. Bush signed a Texas law stating that a manual recount is preferable to an electronic machine recount in resolving close elections. His aides have rejected comparisons with the Florida controversy, saying that election law in Texas details uniform procedures for recounting punch card ballots.
Despite the widespread concerns about punch card balloting, some election officials defend the machines.
“I've used this system for 20 years. I can make an unqualified, unequivocal statement that as long as all the ballots are counted, this system is extremely accurate,'' said Larry Spahr, director of the Washington County (Pa.) Board of Elections. He estimated that machine counts of punch cards are accurate “99 and _ per cent of the time.''
Of particular controversy in the hand-versus-machine debate is a “dimpled'' chad, a pressure prick in a square rather than a perforation.
A Florida circuit court judge yesterday ruled that Palm Beach County canvassers may decide on individual ballots whether a ``dimple'' rather than a full perforation should be counted.
Detecting dimples complicates an already murky area of ballot counting.
“That's pretty problematic,'' Mr. deHaven-Smith said. “I'd be surprised if they count the dimples.''
Washington County's Mr. Spahr said Pennsylvania recounts in disputed elections are conducted under court supervision, with attorneys and even judges pondering dimpled chads.
“Usually the ones that cause the most problems are the dimpled chads,'' Mr. Spahr said. “The paper is still there, but there's a pressure point. You've got be very careful in how you're interpreting that kind of chad.''
Mr. Spahr makes that determination by looking for patterns on the ballot, analyzing whether a voter clearly knocked out the chad in other places. “You have to see a pattern before one can come to a conclusion on what the intent of the voter was,'' he said.
Election analysts say human subjectivity can be minimized by including both political parties and ensuring a system of careful checks.
Mr. DeHaven-Smith of Florida called Mr. Baker's claim of a “possibility for mischief'' a “little overstated,'' noting hand recounts in the state include Democratic and Republican representatives who must agree to change in the outcome. If a hand-count decision conflicts with a machine result, the ballot goes to a county canvassing board, where three members make a final assessment.
Other ballot machines have proven more reliable than the punch card system.
Allegheny County, Pa., uses levers that do not permit citizens to vote inadvertently for multiple candidates.
Arlington County, Va., uses electronic recording machines. Voters touch a blinking light next to their choice. After completing the ballot, voters press a green “vote'' button at the bottom of the screen.
But those state-of-the-art machines come at a high price: Each one costs more than $5,000.
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