Hand Counts and Sausage Factories: The Flawed Hardware of Democracy

by John Boykin

Is it a good thing or a bad thing for Palm Beach County, Florida, to do a hand recount? The answer should be based less on political rhetoric than on a clear understanding of the physical objects at the heart of the issue. Perhaps I can help clarify that.

From 1978 to 1980 I was an election official in Fresno County, California. We used the same punchcard ballot system then that Palm Beach County, Florida, uses today. My responsibilities included laying out ballots, getting them printed, and assembling voting devices.

The punchcard system is deeply flawed. It is prone to a wide assortment of problems that happen often: The public just doesn't hear much about them because they rarely affect the outcome of a high-profile election. It is also only one of a number of systems currently in use. Each county chooses which system it will use.

In the punchcard ballot system, your vote consists of a hole in a 1950s-vintage computer card. Making that hole correctly requires that all of the physical pieces in the system line up just right and work just right. Often they don't. As a result, it is not at all unusual, for example, for the perforated chip to fail to detach fully from the card. The chip may hang like a half-open door. When election officials stack up the ballots, the hanging chip may be pressed back into place, like closing the door. When the card then runs through the counting machine, the hole has closed, so no vote is recorded.

Is a hand count of punchcard ballots more or less reliable than a machine count? The only real advantage of a machine count is speed. Machines do have the apparent advantage of being unbiased, but they also have the disadvantage of being stupid.

Humans understand the flaws in the system; machines do not. The human eye can easily interpret what the machine missed: that the chip is loose or a puncture hole is right next to the chip. This usually makes it easy for a human to interpret the voter's intent. These are certainly judgment calls, but they are not made alone or in secret. A hand count is a highly public process governed by state regulations. Any ambiguous ballot is scrutinized by a group of people, with watchdogs looking over their shoulders.

Election officials pray for two things: landslides, and not seeing their names in the paper the next day. If they get the first, the flaws in the system won't matter enough to lead to the second.

While Florida is getting the scrutiny now, you could pick any state or election at random, and chances are good you'd find comparable problems. It's rarely fraud. It's rarely conspiracy. It's just that election officials don't get frequent chances to practice, marginally trained volunteers staff the polling places, and tight budgets and bureaucratic inertia encourage officials to keep getting by with the same dubious systems whose main virtue is familiarity.

Perhaps it will take something like the mess in Florida to inspire a serious rethinking of the hardware at the heart of our democratic process.

John Boykin is a writer and information designer in the San Francisco Bay Area.