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Florida issues familiar to Tri-State candidates, voters

November 13, 2000|By LAURA ERNDE

Florida issues familiar to Tri-State candidates, voters



Bob Tabb of Leetown, W.Va., has some idea of what Al Gore and George W. Bush are going through.

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Tabb came within just three votes of ousting incumbent Republican state Del. John Doyle in Jefferson County's May primary.

The stakes weren't as high as they are now, with the fate of the presidency hanging on several hundred votes in Florida, but tensions ran high nonetheless.

Another similarity is that both elections relied on the use of punch-card ballots.

If any lesson can be learned from either nail-biting election, it's that no balloting method is foolproof and mistakes can, and do, happen.

In Florida, a second count recorded thousands of additional votes for both Bush and Gore. Elections officials attributed the gap in part to the punch-card ballots.

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Voters using such ballots push a stylus through a card to mark the candidate for whom they are voting. Sometimes the hole isn't complete and the piece that was supposed to be punched out - called a "chad" - is left hanging, which can prevent the machine from recording that vote.

Jefferson County election workers check to make sure there are no "chads" on the ballots before they are counted by the machine, said County Clerk John Ott.

"We have all the confidence in the world with the equipment we have," Ott said.

After all the votes were tabulated in Jefferson County, Tabb chose not to dispute Doyle's three-vote victory.

He said he has no regrets, but hopes lessons can be learned from both elections.

"I hope the voters don't become more disenfranchised. I think at the very least some of these systems and methods of doing things are going to be examined closely," Tabb said.

Jefferson and Berkeley counties in the Eastern Panhandle are the only Tri-State area jurisdictions that use punch-card ballots, one of the oldest forms of automated ballot counting.

Washington County, along with Franklin and Fulton counties in Pennsylvania, use various forms of optical scan systems in which the voter fills in a circle or connects an arrow to vote and a machine "reads" each ballot.

Morgan County, W.Va., still counts its paper ballots by hand, which is time-consuming, said County Manager Bill Clark.

"It's worked for hundreds of years here," he said.

There is no such thing as a perfect voting system, according to Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group in Houston that monitors voter registration and elections administration.

"If you sent lawyers into any jurisdiction in America, no matter what voting system is being used, they could find something to pick apart if it were a close election," Lewis told the Miami Herald.

Local election officials said they are doing the best job they can counting every person's vote.

But unforeseen errors occur. Not one, but two machines, did not work in Berkeley County, W.Va., on election night and results were delayed until the next morning.

Because of glitches in the motor-voter registration laws, an undetermined number of people mistakenly thought they were registered to vote.

Washington County is reviewing its six-year-old system because the lease on its optical scan equipment expires next year, Washington County Election Director Dorothy Kaetzel said.

A new touch-screen form of computerized voting being used in a small number of counties seems to be highly accurate and reliable, but it's expensive, election officials said.

Washington County is generally pleased with its current system, which safeguards against double-voting because it immediately alerts a voter who votes for more than one candidate in a race.

In other jurisdictions, those ballots are nullified.

Area elections officials did not agree on which is superior, a hand count or a machine count.

If the machines are running smoothly, they are probably more accurate, said Fulton County Chief Clerk Richard Wible.

Otherwise, human error can alter the results.

"Your train of thought is distracted. You stop to get a drink of coffee," Ott said.

But Kaetzel maintained that hand counts are more accurate.

Washington County has a four-person team for hand counts. One person reads the votes and another marks them down on a piece of paper, while two people watch to see that each is doing the job correctly, she said.

Often, the hand count doesn't make a difference in the outcome of an election, said Berkeley County Clerk John Small. A case in point was the May primary between Gray Silver III and David Camilletti for the new Eastern Panhandle Circuit Court judge's position.

After a five-month court battle and several recounts, Camilletti still lost. In the end, the margin was narrowed from 39 votes to 23 votes.

That close race has already led to some changes.

After 20 ballots in Jefferson County were thrown out in the primary for lack of two election officials' signatures, election officials and voters paid closer attention to the signatures on election night, Tabb said.

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