By: Mark Fitzgerald

Counting Chad More Effective Than Counting Sheep

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – In “Doonesbury,” the news media’s
so-called “recount” of disputed presidential election ballots in
Florida is depicted as a rollicking affair in which reporters
shuffle through punch cards while cracking wise about chads.

In reality, reporters assigned to the ballot reviews are working
under conditions of almost unimaginable tedium. And the worst
spot appears to be Palm Beach County, the home of the butterfly
ballot and the epicenter of the post-Election Day histrionics.

This is the scene every weekday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in Room
106 of the Palm Beach County Government Center in West Palm
Beach: Sitting on metal folding chairs behind a table in a
cramped room are a reporter from The Palm Beach Post; a
Miami Herald reporter and an accountant from BDO Seidman,
the firm the Herald hired for its count of all 67 Florida
counties; a Republican Party observer; and an accountant for the
conservative political group Judicial Watch, who has managed to
snag the only chair in the room with upholstery and armrests.

The strict rule is no talking – and no stopping except for
an occasional five-minute bathroom break. An election official
takes a disputed ballot from its envelope and identifies it,
saying, for example, “Precinct 17-A, Republican, undervote.” The
official gives it to another election worker who holds it up and
slowly moves it in front of those at the table. Each person in
turn stares at the ballot positions No. 3 – George W. Bush’s
slot – and No. 5 – Al Gore’s slot.

The reviewers mark their forms to describe the condition of the
positions, such as dimpled, hanging, or unpunched. Then they do
it all over again.

“What can you say? It’s a long and tedious process. I’d really
like this to be over so I can get back to work,” said Palm
Beach Post reporter Tim O’Meilia who on a recent day was
taking turns at the table with colleague Scott McCabe.

After a week in Room 106, McCabe said he had seen just about
everything voters can do to a ballot. “You’d think the ballots
would be clean, but I’ve seen them with an ‘X’ through the
square, or people circle the square. I’ve seen ballots where
people put tape over the chad,” he said.

McCabe’s most interesting ballot by far was one in which the
little dot in the center of chad was on the back of the card. “It
somehow spun around inside the square. You wouldn’t think it had
been touched,” McCabe said.

At the end of the day, the eyes of both McCabe and O’Meilia were
rimmed red with fatigue, but they at least could switch off to
eat lunch and take breaks. Not so Miami Herald reporter
Shari Rudavsky. Because both she and the BDO Seidman are
compiling separate surveys, neither can leave except when decreed
by county officials – who rotate personnel frequently
through the day.

“Because we don’t get any breaks, I try not to eat breakfast or
lunch, so by the end I get rather tired,” Rudavsky said
apologetically at the end of a recent day. “You should get here
before it starts. I’m a little more coherent in the morning.”

Mark Fitzgerald ( is editor at large for E&P.

Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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