Online archives from The Sun Chronicle.

November 18, 2000

 Recounts serious matter


Eleanor Ruest, a longtime North Attleboro election commissioner, is not amused.

For days on end, jokes and gibes have been directed at Florida election officials who, for just as long, have been squinting through pinpricks in stacks of punch card ballots, trying to divine each voter's intent in the closest presidential election in more than a century. ``What else would you expect to see,'' Ruest huffed. ``Anyone who thinks that's funny obviously has never been through a recount.''

While the eyes of a nation look south to Florida and what seems an electoral train wreck, Ruest and others who have been through recounts say what's going on now in Florida has happened here, and can happen almost anywhere a voter walks up to a ballot box.

Messy litigation in a high-profile election? Massachusetts has been there, done that.

Four years ago, after a recount, it came down to the courts to decide who would be the Democratic nominee to represent Massachusetts' 10th Congressional District. That Democrat still holds the seat.

Voter fraud?

While election officials say outright fraud is so rare these days it's inconsequential, an Attleboro man came forward after the April 1996 primary to say he voted three times -- in North Attleboro -- just to prove it could be done. 


An Attleboro city council race in 1985 hung by a single chad, those pesky bits of paper that can dangle from a ballot when a vote is cast. After a recount, the victor suddenly was the loser -- again, by a single chad hanging from one of those punch card ballots.

``No election is perfect. They can't be,'' Ruest said. ``You've got humans and you've got machines. Both make mistakes.''

Part of the system

Like it not, mistakes are part of the system. Mistakes usually don't matter, the reasoning goes, because they are random and are spread across the ballot.

``This goes on all over the country,'' said Rebecca Mercuri, a visiting professor of computer science at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania and a frequent expert witness on computer security and voting systems.

``Voting anomalies happen all over the country, in most states,'' she said. ``Most voting systems have an error rate of between 2 and 5 percent. Most election officials will admit to that.''

The problem in Florida, and with this presidential election in general, is the margin of victory seems to be far less than the accepted margin of error.

``Flaws don't matter if the vote is 60-40,'' said Victor DeSantis, a political science professor at Bridgewater State College. ``Those flaws show up when the vote is 50-50.''

In Florida, much of the blame has been leveled at the now-infamous punch card ballot, a voting system that has been outlawed in Massachusetts since September 1998.

Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin threw out that type of ballot because of the havoc it caused in the 1996 Democratic primary for Massachusetts' 10th congressional seat.

The primary night count gave Philip Johnston a 266-vote lead over William Delahunt out of more than 35,000 votes cast. A subsequent recount whittled Johnston's lead to 181 votes, but still he prevailed.

Delahunt, dissatisfied with the outcome of the recount, took the matter to Superior Court where Judge Elizabeth Donovan re-examined the ballots by hand.

In question were almost 1,000 punch cards that had been blanked by voting machines and tossed out, mostly at polls in Weymouth, Abington and Orleans.

The judge determined in many cases that electronic scanners read ballots as blank only because they had not been punched cleanly through. She gave the election to Delahunt by 108 votes.

Johnston was campaigning with First Lady Hillary Clinton at a Democratic unity rally when that thunderbolt struck. He promptly filed an appeal with the Supreme Judicial Court, arguing that if ballots were left blank or were only slightly indented, it was because voters hadn't made up their minds.

But that would have meant, in Weymouth alone, almost 23 percent of voters had intentionally cast blanks and, Delahunt argued, they turned out on a stormy night to do it.

The Supreme Judicial Court affirmed Judge Donovan's ruling.

Galvin said he knew of nothing like that happening before in voting for such a high state office, and ordered state monitors to the polls for the Nov. 5 presidential election in cities and towns that used the punch card ballot.

The problem with punch cards is that votes aren't always cleanly punched through, and when they are, chad can then shift around, jamming other holes so that those votes are misread.

Attleboro area election officials had long been aware of the pitfalls of punch card ballots, and for the most part had junked them before the statewide ban was imposed.

``You could run the ballots through three times and get three different results because those chad would fall off,'' said North Attleboro Elections Chairwoman Diane Szpila.

North Attleboro discarded punch cards after an acrimonious election to build a new middle school in January 1995. A recount was held when the new school was approved by a 158-vote margin out of 5,290 votes cast. The school lost eight votes in the recount, but overall the project prevailed.

``A lot of the chad were still hanging on when we did the recount,'' Szpila said.

Ruest, who was elections chairwoman at that time, called that election, ``the straw that broke the camel's back.''

``Hardly any of them went through the first time,'' she said.

Election officials are told to keep punch card ballots away from moisture, lest they become even more difficult to punch through. So where were those ballots stored for years in Attleboro? On the basement floor of city hall, said Jessie Joubert, who worked for more than two decades in the city elections office.

Problems can also occur when the ballots are misaligned.

``We found a lot of ballots where the punches weren't where they should have been,'' Joubert said. ``There was nothing we could do. The machine automatically canceled them out. We had a lot of those, I'll tell you.''

In 1985, Tony Viveiros beat incumbent Thomas Dudson by one vote in the initial count for the Ward 2 city council seat. He lost by one vote in a recount.

``It was just like what you're seeing on TV now in Florida,'' he said. ``Election people looking up at a ballot, trying to figure out what was the voter's intent. If there was a hanging chad, it had to be more than half-way through.''

``I broke into tears when it was all over,'' Viveiros said.

And what of punch card ballots?

``I hate 'em with a passion,'' he said.

Bill Crowley, an Attleboro election commissioner, is more blunt. ``They're a bitch,'' he said.

``We would have disagreements every election because the count was off all the time,'' Crowley said. ``If we had 1,000 ballots, maybe the count would come out 995. On occasion, we'd run them through two or three times until the count came close to what it was supposed to be.

``That's sad, but that's the way it worked,'' he said. ``Those machines just weren't 100 percent.''

Punch card ballots are still widely used across the United States, despite their drawbacks, experts say.

In Massachusetts, four types of voting systems are used.

By far the most common is an optical scanning system which reads marks a voter makes on a ballot. It's in use throughout the Attleboro area and in 908 precincts in 147 cities and towns.

Old-style lever machines, which aren't manufactured anymore, are used in 434 precincts in 23 communities.

Paper ballots are still used in 79 towns.

Four communities, Dighton, Franklin, Lawrence and Milton, still use a variation of the punch card ballot, although unlike in Florida, the names of candidates are printed on the card.

But even those systems can stumble.

``In any system, people can make mistakes,'' said Brian McNiff, spokesman for the secretary of state's office. ``They can make mistakes with an opti-scan.''

``I'm not sure the secretary would ever get into the acceptance rate of errors,'' he added.

Crowley said optical scanners are far better than the old punch card system, although ``they're still subject to error.''

``We have people who still try to punch holes through the ballot, or make an X or they circle the little oval they're supposed to fill in,'' he said.

And, sometimes optical scanners misread marks even when the marks are penciled in correctly.

``Readers, anything that scans things optically, have an error rate,'' Mercuri said.

``Even the SAT people will admit to an error rate,'' she said, referring to college entrance tests which for years have relied on optical scanners.

With the electoral mess in Florida flickering on television sets 24 hours a day, there have been rumblings in Congress to devise some kind of unified voting system.

It'll never happen, said Bruce Schulman, a history professor at Boston University.

``It's one of those things like the Electoral College,'' he said. ``Legislation will be filed to reform it, but it won't get very far.

``Technologically, it's possible and it should be done,'' Schulman said. ``But it won't be done for two reasons. First, it's too expensive. That's why so many cities are still using this ancient stuff. Then, there's the political side. Laws and established tradition say that states and local governments administer elections.''

A statewide unified voting system hasn't even been discussed in Massachusetts, McNiff said.

A unified system is, so far, unworkable and unnecessary, Mercuri said.

``As long as you have a system that allows a manual recount, then you have the possibility of a recount,'' she said. ``That's what most municipalities do.

``As long as you're willing to accept that, then every vote does count.

``Even a punch card you can hold in your hand; you can see the chad,'' she said. ``You don't get that with an Internet system or a computer system where you touch the screen. There's no audit trail.''

Besides, Mercuri said, ``As a programmer, I could write an interface that would send 10 percent of Gore's vote to Buchanan. Even some high school students could do that.''

And what of voter fraud?

So far, there have been no substantial charges of outright fraud in this election, although some college students in Wisconsin have admitted to casting multiple votes as a prank.

Those reports brought memories flooding back to Edmund Morrison, a South Attleboro man who said he cast three votes in North Attleboro during an April 1996 primary, just to prove it could be done.

Morrison said he did so because he had overheard a group of women in a North Attleboro restaurant talking about how they had voted more than once in the middle school election a year earlier.

Morrison had just moved from North Attleboro at that time, and still was listed on the town's voter registration rolls. He said he cast one vote as himself then used the names of two friends to cast opposing votes that canceled each other out.

``I didn't do any malice,'' he said. ``I just wanted to show how easy it was to do, and that voters should be required to show some form of identification.''

That little act could have cost Morrison a $10,000 fine and up to five years in prison, but the court declined to prosecute because, other than his own word, there was no proof he had committed fraud.

To this day, Morrison is unapologetic.

``Those college kids proved, again, how easy it is,'' he said. ``I think it smells to high heaven.''

And North Attleboro election officials are still unsure Morrison really did what he said he did.

``I think it was wishful thinking on his part,'' Ruest said. ``He was all too anxious to call the Boston Globe.

``I looked over the voting list a long time, but I couldn't find anything.''