PLANTATION, Fla., Nov. 17-No one was prepared for the immaculate chad. It was a chad that scoffed at the laws of probability. It was not an ordinary chad, not merely pregnant, dimpled, hanging or dangling. It had no visible detachment from the ballot. It was, rather, REVERSED. It was occupying the number 3 hole, the Gore hole, but the little black dot that should have been on the front side was, incredibly, on the back. It was a fully flopped-over, inverted, reciprocal, miracle chad.
Conclusion: A rogue, foot-loose chad had plugged the hole.
"Evidently, it floated in there somehow," said the Broward County Supervisor of Elections, Jane Carroll.
One more vote for Gore. Republican lawyers, observing closely, disapproved vehemently.
"It shows this process is flawed. How do they know the ballot wasn't printed incorrectly?" said Republican party official George Lemieux.
Ah, but there was one other bit of data about this particular ballot, and the canvassing board found it compelling: A machine had already recorded the ballot as a Gore vote. Presumably it was only after that point that the immaculate chad came swooping in.
You can see that the pressure of the moment has created a rather surreal atmosphere here at the Emergency Operations Center, a modern concrete fortress parked on 84th Avenue in the congested Broward suburbs. Nothing is trivial in this high-stakes game. The situation is simultaneously historic and hysterical. Lawyers are swarming. Subpoenas cloud the air like gnats. The Republicans, alert for fraud, have demanded that all surveillance tapes of the vote-counting room be preserved.
The Republicans show a particular interest in the chad. Thursday night the Republicans got on their hands and knees and gathered up the tiny scraps of paper from the floor. The chad are so small they can only be picked up by wetting the tip of a finger and dabbing at them.
"No fair observer can dispute that there are extraordinary irregularities going on in this recount," said Ed McNally, a lawyer and Bush campaign volunteer. "I think the fact that Broward County sheriff's deputies seized 78 chads last night utterly confirms that the massive handling and re-handling of these ballots is degrading them physically." He brandished a photograph showing a sheriff's deputy sorting the chad into clusters of five. The chad were then placed in a manila envelope. According to The Associated Press, someone helpfully put a label on the envelope: "Crime. Found Property." The sheriff's office, however, says it is not conducting an investigation.
The task in Broward is formidable. Hundreds of people are manually recounting 588,000 ballots. Jane Carroll says she has seen nothing like it in her 32 years as elections supervisor, and frankly she's not happy about it. She looks around the room and sees unfamiliar faces. She likes to keep things under tight control, and this is slow-motion mayhem. "I like organization," she says.
By Thursday night, Gore had a net gain of 21 votes with 90 out of 606 precincts counted. But it might be garbage data: Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris says she won't heed the new numbers, and this morning a Florida judge backed her up. It looks as though the election might actually end this weekend.
Despite this morning's ruling, the Broward recount continued at full speed, which is to say, at an excruciatingly tedious pace. Every ballot is scrutinized by four people: two "counters" who work for the county, and two "observers," one Republican and one Democrat. The ballots have no words on them, just columns of numbers. The first column is the presidential race. The voter was supposed to use a metal stylus to punch a hole in the ballot at the number corresponding to the preferred candidate. The ballot has a perforated chad ready to fall out when poked. Sometimes, though, voters don't push hard enough. The chad sticks in some fashion. It might remain attached by a single corner, or two corners, or three, or it might merely be dimpled, also known as "pregnant."
The standard in Broward is relatively strict: A vote only counts if the chad is detached at two corners. A one-corner chad or a dimpled chad is a no-vote, or "undervote." Up in Palm Beach County, by contrast, a one-corner chad is counted.
If any of the four people examining the ballot has a dispute about the vote, the ballot is channeled to the canvassing board in the next room. The canvassing board is a motley group. The chairman is County Judge Robert Lee, a rather effervescent fellow who normally handles domestic violence cases. His liberal flank is occupied by County Commissioner Suzanne Gunzburger, a former teacher who seems to be relishing the chance to do something historic. On his other side is Carroll, a Republican, who cast the lone vote against the recount.
They proceed with all due deliberation. The ballots are passed back and forth gingerly, and showed to the partisan observers.
"Sixteen-N-one is a clear undervote . . . Sixteen-N-two is a clear undervote . . . Sixteen-N-three appears to me two corners attached."
"I see what you're talking about."
"That's no different from a lot of the other ones."
"There is a net gain of one for Bush."
It does not appear to be a foolproof arrangement. Cardboard boxes of ballots keep coming into the room, and several times yesterday there were concerns that ballots had been misplaced. "We're missing two ballots," Lee announced at one point. "We need someone to recount this box." A moment later he said, "Actually, it could be one off, rather than two." The process did not reek of precision.
The board members were hit with subpoenas in the middle of the afternoon. Gunzburger said, "It could be squashed."
"Quashed," the judge said.
"It could be squashed AND quashed," Carroll said.
Television producers are trying to line them up for interviews, but they're getting picky.
"I turned down the Today show, and Good Morning America, and I'm sure not going to do the other one," Carroll said.
At the end of the day, there's something on the floor. It's so small as to be almost invisible. But yes: It's a chad. Retrieved on a wet fingertip, it has the signature dot in the center. A historic chad! Portentous and controversial! But how would anyone know if it was a chad from the presidential race or a chad from, say, the dogcatcher race? Is there some way to distinguish the important chad from the irrelevant chad?
Jane Carroll shook her head in the negative.
"A chad is a chad," she said.
(Rough Draft, suffering through Chamber of Commerce weather in South Florida, appears occasionally and without warning at washingtonpost.com. It is willing to sell its chad for one million dollars.)
© 2000 The Washington Post Company