By James A. Cooley, reporter for The Lone Star Report
he furor in Florida in large part revolves around what can and cannot be counted as a valid ballot. The world watched as canvassers spent the last few days trying to ascertain the "intent" of a few thousand voters, a prospect that is sending shivers up the spines of the Bush camp.
Determining intent doesn't necessarily have to be a sinister process. It all depends upon how it is done and that is the devilish detail that sent Republicans scurrying to the courthouse. They didn't get the hoped-for injunction, but raised a valid point worth examining closer.
Here is the relevant excerpt from Florida election law on how establishing intent is supposed to happen, taken from Title IX, Ch. 101.5614, Canvass of returns:
If any paper ballot is damaged or defective so that it cannot be counted properly by the automatic tabulating equipment, the ballot shall be counted manually at the counting center by the canvassing board. The totals for all such ballots or ballot cards counted manually shall be added to the totals for the several precincts or election districts. No vote shall be declared invalid or void if there is a clear indication of the intent of the voter as determined by the canvassing board. After duplicating a ballot, the defective ballot shall be placed in an envelope provided for that purpose, and the duplicate ballot shall be tallied with the other ballots for that precinct.
Note the language regarding establishing the "clear indication of the intent of the voter" regarding how ballot is to allocated. This is crucial.
If the voter selected two candidates in the same race and handed over that ballot to be counted that was just too bad in Florida, and just about anyplace else. Here is what Florida Election Code has to say on the topic:
"If an elector marks more names than there are persons to be elected to an office or if it is impossible to determine the elector's choice, the elector's ballot shall not be counted for that office, but the ballot shall not be invalidated as to those names which are properly marked."
While counting votes by gauging the clear intent of the voter is the law in Florida, the potential for abuse is absolutely there. Making this task more difficult is the lack of statutory guidance in Florida law regarding what determines a voter's clear intent especially as it relates to those now infamous punch card ballots. After all, the counters are supposed to gauge the clear intent of an unknown voter based solely upon the sparse evidence found on a much-handled punch card.
After all, one would hope there would be a fairly high level of proof needed to establish the clear intent of an unknown voter on a disputed ballot. Is this the case? Let's take a look.
The fact is that as the Palm Beach hand count progressed, different standards were employed. The talley-takers started by examining the punch-out hole to see if the chad that itty-bitty piece of paper in the hole was detached enough to allow light to be seen through the ballot. If so, it was deemed a clearly intended vote.
This so-called "sunlight test" was soon eclipsed in favor of looking at the condition of the chad in relation to the punch-out. Votes would be counted where chads were "hanging," "swinging," or detached at three out of four corners, referred to as "tri" chads. Uncounted would be those with chads that were merely "pregnant" or "dimpled."
Human nature being what it is, the prospect that some Democrat vote counters might be a tad bit more willing to see a swinging chad by Gore's name is a cause for GOP ulcers. The possibility that a crooked counter with a pin, or even a sharp fingernail, might be able to hatch a few pregnant chads while nobody is looking is the stuff of Bush campaign nightmares.
Setting fraud aside, the underlying concern by the GOP remains that an intense focus on four heavily Democratic counties will invariably produce "found" votes that tilt disproportionately to Gore, eventually tipping the state's overall balance. Critics have likened this selective recount strategy to "vote mining."
I concur with the concerns detailed in the federal lawsuit filed by worried Republicans. They didn't get the injunction, but at least got the differing recount methods presented before the general public. If consistency and accuracy are the expressed goals of the recount, then it seems most peculiar to resort to hand counting in a select few (heavily Democrat) areas, with machine counting the standard for the rest of the state.
A change in counting methods can absolutely result in a change in the outcomes. It already has produced additional Gore votes and will continue to do so as long as the hand count is restricted to his strongholds.
Let us hope the announcement by the Florida Secretary of State to hold firm to today's county canvas deadline will finally put an end to vote-harvesting games in Florida. There's too much is at stake to allow fuzzy math to invade the ballot box.