Why correct tallies are so elusive

Elections are always inexact. But with razor-close votes, it suddenly matters.

With the 2000 presidential election still tangled in the Florida saw grass, voters across the country are being confronted with a troubling realization: American elections are less exact than many people previously thought.

From New Mexico to Massachusetts to the eye of the storm here in Palm Beach County, Fla., more and more of the electoral process is being scrutinized, double-guessed, and picked apart for inaccuracies.

How far it goes will not only determine who is the next US president, but also whether substantial changes are needed in the way the world's most powerful democracy chooses its leaders.

"It's a feeling of despair and outrage," says Natalie Klein, one of the thousands of Palm Beach County residents who thinks she voted for the wrong candidate by mistake. "I just wish that we could do it all over again, that my vote could be counted."

While Florida's 25 electoral votes are the crux of the controversy, cries of election anomalies have broken out across the country and could continue to spread as long as important offices remain up for grabs. The charges include foul play, human error, and use of voting technology that dates back to the days of President William McKinley.

One reason voting snafus are difficult to prevent is that every state - indeed, every county - sets up its own system for casting, counting, and recounting ballots. It's that way by design: The US Constitution designates voting and vote-counting as a state responsibility. States, in turn, usually delegate the mechanics of voting to local governments, and as a result, election systems are all over the map.

Mechanical-lever machines, introduced in 1892, are still used in some cities, such as New York and Boston. Almost 4 in 10 US voters use the punch-card system, a technology developed for the 1890 census. And in Detroit, voters need to mark ballots with special election pens (a shortage of these led to long lines on election day).

"This is the first time that we've really had an election of this magnitude in which the entire nation has focused on these issues," says Doug Lewis of the nonpartisan Election Center in Houston. "What we're seeing is that it's an imperfect process."

How much imperfection is acceptable - and where officials or laws should draw the line of demarcation - is a debate that has now embroiled both presidential campaigns in the fight over Florida. The team for Democrat Al Gore has spearheaded calls to manually recount parts of the Florida vote - which for the moment gives Republican George W. Bush a slight lead. The Bush camp is trying to block a hand recount of Palm Beach County, and is retaliating with its own threats to seek recounts in states Mr. Gore won by a hair's breadth.

Among the contested votes:

* In New Mexico, computer glitches and human error resulted in disputed votes for offices at all levels, right up to the presidency. Mr. Bush was leading Mr. Gore by just four votes, but a recount is likely.

* In Wisconsin, a state in which Gore beat Bush by 6,099 votes out of 2.5 million cast, allegations abound of negligence and possible illegal activities at the state's polling places. The state Republican Party said complaints, mostly from Milwaukee County, include voters getting two ballots or being told they had already voted.

* In Iowa, the Bush campaign is considering asking for a recount after results showed that Gore won by fewer than 5,100 votes out of 1.3 million cast.

* Oregon, where mail-in votes are still trickling in, may yet have a state-mandated recount if less than one-fifth of a percentage point separates the two candidates. At press time, Gore led by a margin that would not trigger the automatic recount, but more ballots remain to be counted.

Meanwhile, nonpresidential vote disputes roiled Boston, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and the state of Montana, to name a few. Summing up the election perhaps best of all was the race for City Council in Pine Haven, Wyo., which ended in a draw. It was resolved - after a tied recount - when Dan Blakeman's name was randomly drawn out of a coffee cup and he was declared the winner.

But none of these disputes carries the consequences of the Florida vote, which is unlikely to be resolved before Friday, the deadline for receiving overseas absentee ballots. Over the weekend, officials in Palm Beach County counted and recounted votes under what felt like the microscope of the entire world. They tried to assure voters that fairness was being served.

"I hope the people are not concerned," says County Judge Charles Burton. "We are trying to do this process as openly as possible."

The first flaw in Florida came on election night, when a computer operator mistakenly deleted some 400 votes, which came from a strongly pro-Gore district. The mistake however, was caught the next day, and the additional votes gave Gore a boost. "It's disgusting that this could happen," says Sol Fursmidt, one of those whose vote was initially deleted.

But the heart of the controversy is the "butterfly ballot," which some voters say confused them enough that they ended up voting for the Reform Party's Pat Buchanan instead of Gore. Other voters say they became flustered and punched the ballot twice, automatically disqualifying it. There were about 19,000 such over-voted ballots.

"I honestly don't know who I voted for," says Jewel Littenberg, a resident of West Palm Beach who Saturday was outside the elections office painting a placard that read "Every Vote Counts."

As the Bush and Gore legal teams debate which kind of recount is better - by hand or by computer - the Election Center's Mr. Lewis says the two are hard to compare. "If you run ballots through a machine and they are properly marked, it's far more accurate," he says. "But with imperfect ballots ... a hand count can help determine voter intent."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.