How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Chad

My big adventure inside the counting room

In a line nearby were my Republican counterparts. I heard one of them say he was a lawyer from Ohio. A lot of the Republicans were wearing shirts that betrayed their Buckeye State origins (one commemorated Ohio's bicentennial; another was a Gov. Bob Taft campaign shirt). As the day wore on, I gathered that most of the people in these rooms were among the peculiar breed of snowbird this ongoing electoral snafu has attracted.

Two hours after I entered the building, I finally was led to a recount table and soon found that each ballot counting team requires a foursome: two inspectors and two observers. For every Democratic counter, there is a Republican one. The same goes for observers. The inspectors were all county employees; they were the only ones actually allowed to handle the ballots. We observers weren't allowed to touch even the table, much less a ballot.

My Democratic inspector was a middle-age guy we'll call John. He was like my doubles partner. Down the table from him were our opponents, a white-bearded Republican inspector known for the purposes of this story as Crenshaw, and a young GOP guy from Washington, D.C., who actually was named Tim.

Genuine Florida chads are fetching a pretty penny on the Internet
Michael McElroy
Genuine Florida chads are fetching a pretty penny on the Internet

John and Crenshaw began the proceedings by carefully taking our assigned ballots out of a box and stacking them on the table. John, using scraps of paper, then made six different categories for the ballots: "Gore," "Bush," "undervote," "overvote," "other," and "challenge."

Crenshaw, who I noticed had an American-flag patch on his jacket, began the process by picking up a ballot and holding it to the light for Tim to view. Tim saw that the third hole on the presidential column, which was the first column on the far-left side of the ballot, was punched cleanly. (The first hole was meaningless, the second was a vote for Bush, the third was a vote for Gore.)

So Tim said, "Three," meaning that he conceded that this ballot clearly was a vote for Gore. Crenshaw repeated, "three" and handed the ballot to John, who held it up for me. It was a clean vote. "You don't need to see the backs of threes," John said. "You aren't going to challenge any of those."

That made sense. Why would I challenge a ballot that the Republicans already conceded was a Gore vote? The next few votes were all unchallenged Gore votes as well, making the job easy for John and me. All I had to say was "yep," or "clean," or "good," and John would put the ballot in the Gore stack. Then Tim finally called a "two" for Bush, and John held it up for me. You can't see most hanging or dimpled chads from the front, so he turned it around for me to see the back of it. It was clean. "Yep," I said, and John put it in the Bush stack.

There were roughly 2400 ballots in our stacks, so many that other foursomes at our table helped us count them. Of the 2400, exactly 1987, or 83 percent, were clean, undisputed Gore votes. You might be able to imagine the monotony of that, but I can't say it was ever boring. There was a charged atmosphere to the process and, whether it was true or not, there was a feeling that if you didn't catch every questionable vote, it could be the difference in the election.

Only 223, or 4 percent, were Bush votes. There also were 57 undisputed overvotes, ballots on which more than one presidential candidate is punched. I noticed that at least a half-dozen people punched for both Al Gore and Ralph Nader. More perplexing were a few cards punched for both Bush and Gore. Others had chosen a whole slew of candidates, including some you've likely never heard of, like Monica Moorehead and David McReynolds.

Twenty of the 2400 were "others": undisputed votes for candidates other than Bush or Gore. Most were cast for Nader (nine) and Buchanan (eight). I can't remember the number of undisputed undervotes, but I know there weren't many. A true undervote is a ballot in which no president was punched. Not even a dimple. My recollection is that there were about twenty of them.

The really interesting ones, of course, were the challenges, the ballots with chad problems. And believe me, there were serious chad problems. I was shocked at how many chads were stuck to these ballots, each one representing an uncounted vote someone had cast for president, or senator, or school board, or whatever. I saw several ballots in which hanging chads were left behind on almost every column of the ballot. These voters had been shut out.

There were swinging-door chads (two corners firmly attached) and hanging chads (only one corner still attached). Some were hanging by a thread, ready to fall. I saw some chad phenomena that didn't have names. In the spirit of adding confusion to hype, I'll go ahead and coin them here. There's the "pricked chad," where the voter's stylus actually had gone through, but the faulty chad stayed in place. (As far as I could tell, pricked chads and pregnant chads have no cause-and-effect relationship.) And there is the "blown-out chad," in which the voter pushed the chad hard enough that light streamed in from all four sides, yet the four corners miraculously stayed in place.

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