Associated Press
November 11, 2000

Experts: Machine Counts Inaccurate

By Tony Winton

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Think every vote counts? Think again.

Problems with automated vote-counting equipment, especially the computer card punch type used in south Florida, have been well documented, said Rebecca Mercuri, a visiting professor of computer science at Bryn Mawr College.

"You will never get the same numbers," she said. "If you run thousands of these cards through again and again, you will continue to get different numbers that are coming up.

"An error rate of 2 percent to 5 percent, believe it or not, is considered acceptable by most election officials ... if the error is evenly distributed across all of the candidates."

In Florida's punch card system, tabulating equipment can fail to pick up cards that aren't punched cleanly through. And the bits of paper punched out of the cards called "chad" can then move around and become lodged in the open holes of other ballots, causing machines to misread otherwise perfectly punched ballots.

Problems also can arise when cards are misaligned, and there can be problems with the computer software that keeps track of the tally.

Mercuri, who has testified in various municipalities about problems with voting technology, said the National Institute of Standards and Technology criticized punch card ballots in 1988.

Election officials often are willing to live with error margins because they typically value ballot privacy over accuracy when they purchase vote-counting machinery, she said.

In Broward and Palm Beach counties, where Democrats are seeking hand recounts of the ballots, the voting tabulation systems were made by Election Resources Corp. of Little Rock, Ark. Company President Paul Nolte acknowledged Saturday that "hanging chad" is a known problem with punch card systems.

Still, he said, "The chances of finding hanging chad after four machine recounts are pretty remote." He said equipment used in those counties met Florida's error tolerances and performed with zero errors on tests for state certification.

"It's more accurate than the critics are saying," Nolte said.

Robert Rackleff, a Leon County commissioner and a member of that county's canvassing board, maintains that punch card systems are eight times more likely to miss a vote than optical scanners used elsewhere.

"The voter tabulation systems used in 27 of Florida's counties do not, and have not, accurately counted the ballots cast for president," Rackleff said.

Clay Roberts, director of the State Division of Elections, sees drawbacks to both systems.

Republicans have filed suit to block manual recounts, contending they are less accurate. But Peter Neumann, principal scientist at SRI International, a nonprofit computer research group, who has testified before Congress on computer issues, says officials in England and Germany consider manual counts to be more accurate than automated ones.

"You should do a manual recount of every card in the state," Neumann said. "This is an endemic problem. It's high time that people woke up and realized how flawed the process is."

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