Commentary

The Problem with Hand Counting

By Ronald D. Rotunda
November 21, 2000
Initially, Vice President Gore asked that the Florida recount be limited to certain counties — those that heavily favored him. Now, Gore wants a manual recount of the more than 6 million votes cast in the entire state, on the grounds that hand counting is more accurate. Is it?

Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris does not think so. Her petition to the Florida Supreme Court to stop the hand counts says: “If countywide manual recounts continue, the results will be broadcast to the nation, which will neither advance the process nor serve the interests of public policy.” Because there are no consistent standards on how to conduct a recount, “the integrity of the ballots themselves are in serious jeopardy.” A hand count will poison the political air, for it will allow the winner of that flawed process to claim victory even if a court later decides that the hand count was defective or corrupt.

Unless the computer voting machines are working improperly — and there is no evidence of that — recounting, either by machine or by hand, will not change the result. Instead, it simply raises the total number of votes counted, in proportion to the votes originally counted, if there is no mischief when the votes are recounted.

Counting by hand increases the number of votes counted, because a human being will accept more ballots than will the machine. For example, the chad in the punch card may not be completely punched out, but the human vote counter can recognize that and count the ballot. The hand count should increase the total for both candidates, but in a way that is statistically proportional to the results from the machine tabulation, if the human eye is nonpartisan.

But the eye is partisan. On election night, Bush had a 1,784 vote lead over Gore; after several recounts, that margin dropped to 300 votes. The statistical chance that Gore would increase his vote total as much as he did are 43 million to one. How did Gore beat those odds?

The sad fact is that the people who handled the ballots treated them inconsistently. Machines (unlike the people who manually count) belong to no political party. We know that the counters have been employing standards that change from precinct to precinct and from hour to hour. Palm Beach’s Election Commission changed its standards twice last Saturday. This kind of arbitrary, capricious, and ex post facto decision-making poses a considerable due process problem. The most elemental meaning of due process is “fair procedure.”

In Pinellas County (a Gore stronghold), when the human hands reinserted ballots into the machine for a recount, election officials decided to help things along. Before resubmission, they removed the chads by hand, thus giving Gore an extra 417 votes. If people can do that when they are limited by the machine, think of the opportunities that abound when they needn’t bother with the machine.

One lawyer described the procedure this way: First, the person representing the candidate who was trying to change the vote total would eyeball a disputed ballot before picking it up to officially inspect it. If the hanging chad indicated a vote for the other side, the lawyer would pick up the ballot very gently, so he could argue that the voter really never intended to vote for the opponent. If the hanging chad was a vote for his side, the lawyer would handle the ballot vigorously, so that the chad soon was no longer hanging.

One Florida judge has ruled that election officials can treat a ballot as cast for a particular candidate so long as the voting card’s “dimple” is such that the hand counter thinks he has divined the true intention of the voter. Do you really think that such guesses will be consistently applied over thousands of ballots? Will they be divorced from the politics of the official?

Although the deadline for recounting has passed, some Florida areas are still recounting, until Gore wins enough votes to tip the state. Hand counting the way it is being done in Florida violates basic procedural due process. It will not give us better information about the voters’ intent, only more evidence that the recounting will stop only when the vote comes out the way the recounters want it to.

Ronald. D. Rotunda is a visiting senior fellow in constitutional studies at the Cato Institute.