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A Democratic Observer Reports from Florida: You Never Forget Your First Chad
Dana Chasin

A long weekend trip to Southern Florida to "advance" a group of volunteers from New York going to serve as official Democratic observers in the Florida recount showed me firsthand exactly how business is conducted at the two Florida counties where hand recounts of the Presidential vote are currently underway. As an observer, I saw a process working smoothly, without confusion or the "mischief" James Baker fears. The physical environment and the general attitude of the participants give the process an air of integrity that even the GOP is respecting and contributing to.

Observers play an integral role in the process. One Democrat and one Republican observer - each trained by their respective parties -- is present and watches as every last ballot is counted and assigned to a candidate or classified as an "overcount" (more than one discernible vote mark) or "undercount" (no vote mark). Observers may challenge and keep any ballot from being counted initially; they are not obliged to cite any specific reason for doing so. The county canvassing board reviews all challenged ballots and re-assigns them in the presence of observers. At least four people witness each ballot as it is assigned and counted.

Among observers at the scene, you hear some oft-repeated rhetoric and stories, offered mostly by those not present at any recounts, but commenting from afar. The occasional incident -- an elderly man dropping about 60 sorted ballots, without consequence; a chad-speckled floor tile -- can be the take off point for increased press scrutiny, maybe litigation, for all we know. But the clock is ticking. America's patience with an unresolved Presidential election has its limits. The counting goes on and on, precinct after precinct, up to 15 hours per day.

The attitude among almost all participants in both counties is a businesslike one. The stakes are high and the vote is close, the world appears to be watching -- sometimes from about a foot away. If you focus, you can block it out. The name of the game is to focus, concentrating on the iterative process of looking for holes in a punch card and watching stacks of 25 counted out and stacked. The cards themselves are handled, boxed, and transported with deliberate care.

The ballot card itself, a computer punch card with an array of perforations for numerous candidates and races, is not unusual. It is easy to spot votes. Only about one in a hundred cards will produce anything that might make unclear the intent of the voter. This will usually involve a chad. You never forget your first one. Mine was of the advent calendar window variety, a Gore vote that a machine may not have recorded as a vote, spitting it out as an undervote.

This example illustrates precisely why hand counts must be performed, given this well-known deficiency of the machine count, as well as others. Florida election law requires that indicia of the voter's intent, especially such the semi-perforation, cut, or indentation that indicates an obvious but incomplete effort be the basis of any hand count. The machine counts yielded a total of about 20,000 such indeterminate ballots out of 462,000 in Palm Beach County and 565,000 in Broward. The counting of the more than one million ballots in these two counties alone goes on, despite the remarkable fact that the Florida Supreme Court has not yet ruled on whether hand recounts will actually be tabulated at all in the final vote count.

Teams of observers spell each other, usually after shifts of several hours, with breaks between precincts completed. The shifts are necessarily long because there is not always a long roster of observers available to relieve. The shifts I worked were staffed by various county employees (firemen, police officers, secretaries) and the occasional local temp volunteer serving as counters and administrators. It was reasonably easy to get a question answered by an authority. No disruptions stopped the counting.

Earlier in the process, before I got there, procedural kinks were worked out, with swift assistance by the state courts. The counting seemed to hit an even keel early on and gathered momentum. As the process wore on, fewer administrative breaks were needed and there were fewer challenges made to ballot counts, with the vast majority of these issued by GOP observers.

There is an irony at work here. Texas law provides far more statutory specificity regarding hand recount procedure than Florida law does. Indeed, the recount process was recently reformed by statute in Texas to add a mandate for hand recounts where computer card ballots are used. The irony: Gov. George W. Bush signed that statute into law.

It is worth noting the uniformity of the process in the two counties. How did both counties hit upon ballot stacks of 25, on the same set of patterns and rules regarding the handling of the ballots? The candidate ballot slots differed - Gore was number 3 in Broward, number 5 in Palm Beach. The tally sheets differed slightly but functioned the same way. But the protocol and demeanor was indistinguishable in the two counties.

But the counting is done by people, working around the clock amid an atmosphere somewhere between a large library room and Mission Control in Houston, or like a courtroom on mute. The precinct and county hand counts consistently show a very small number of additional votes for both Gore and Bush, in close proportion to their machine-counted results in the same jurisdiction, as you would expect.

The physical environment re-enforces the atmosphere surrounding the process. The host venues of the recounts were the counties' own Emergency Operation Centers, facilities designed to forecast and oversee the management of public emergencies, usually hurricanes, with plenty of state-of-the art data retrieval and communications equipment, a high-tech infrastructure, tight security and close (including televised) supervision.

Any political process like this, given the Presidential stakes, would be rife for rhetorical abuse and attacks. But insulated from the windy rhetoric outside, inside the counting rooms in Palm Beach and Broward is a workmanlike reality, facilitated by considerable bipartisan cooperation. What is occurring on Palm Beach serves the entire country, as it awaits the results. If this is democracy in action, maybe there is reason to repose some faith in the human, if not the technical, mechanics of democracy.

DANA CHASIN is President of the Empire State Democratic Initiative (ESDI), a statewide membership organization providing opportunities to younger citizens of New York State to participate in the political process.