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Newer machines had more 'under-votes'

By Marc Caputo, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 28, 2000

Voters who used the newest machines in Palm Beach County were three times more likely to have a problem making their votes count in the race for president.

About one-third of the votes cast Nov. 7 were on machines made by Data Punch. But they accounted for nearly half of the so-called "under-votes," where no vote for president was registered, an analysis by The Palm Beach Post shows.

As Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore challenges the election results in Palm Beach County, these Data Punch under-votes might loom large. Democrats have already argued in court that worn voting machines made it difficult for votes to get recorded.

Of the 10,311 under-votes, 5,089 came from the 75 precincts that use Data Punch machines. Fifty-eight of those precincts were in south county, considered a Gore stronghold. The 75 precincts have an equal balance of young and old voters, suggesting voters of all ages may have had problems.

Democrats have complained that 10,000 people would not have ignored the race for president. They suggest that people tried to vote but wound up indenting the ballot rather than punching through it.

Despite Democratic attacks, the supervisor of elections office stands by its equipment. The man in charge of the machines was surprised Monday to hear of the difference in under-votes between the Data Punch and older Votomatic machines.

"It's hard to tell what it means," said Tony Enos, voting systems manager.

"The Data Punch was used in bigger precincts," he said. "More voters can mean more people could be making mistakes."

Experts, too, can't make much sense of what happened and why so many people didn't vote for president. Was it that some people didn't press hard enough? Were the machines faulty? The ballots misleading? The answers aren't clear.

What is clear is that the county's under-vote rate is 2.2 percent. That's 80 percent higher than the 48 other Florida counties that track under-votes, a Yale University professor testified for Democrats at a Friday court hearing.

Data Punch under-votes higher

The under-vote rate for Palm Beach County's Data Punch machine was 4.2 percent. The older machines used in most of Palm Beach County -- Votomatics -- had a rate of just 1.5 percent.

Data Punch's manufacturer says the machine has worked without a hitch for years in counties across the country, including Palm Beach County.

"If there's any problem, it's not from us," said Lora Lee Stephens, owner of Election Data Corp. of Valley Center, Calif.

"Isn't it suspicious that they have had no problem for years, and now it's a close election and this comes up?"

Stephens said her husband, Richard Stephens, is being flown to Tallahassee by the Bush camp as an expert as it prepares to defend itself against Gore's election challenge.

She bristled at charges made Friday in court by Votomatic inventor William Rouverol, who said that plastic strips in machines such as the Data Punch wear away. Stephens said the two machines have identical rubber strips.

The strips, which run lengthwise down the rectangular ballot holder, permit people to vote by punching out a chad. If chads clog the strip, voters might have to push harder. If the rubber strip decays, it might be tougher to push the chad.

Of the hundreds of under-votes certified as actual votes by Palm Beach County's canvassing board, it's unknown which ballots came from Votomatics and which from Data Punches. The county found a 178-vote net gain for Gore during the recount.

Votomatics are bigger and cost about $200 each, though they're no longer made. Palm Beach County has about 3,700 of them. It has about 1,300 Data Punch machines, which cost about $100 apiece and are still manufactured.

Some of Palm Beach County's Votomatics and Data Punches are decades old.

Rubber protected by silicone

And that could be a problem, said Kim Brace, president of a Washington consulting company called Election Data Services Inc.

"I've got a pair of flippers that are no longer good," Brace said. "That stuff rots after 10 years."

But only if you don't maintain it, said David Moore, voting equipment coordinator for Palm Beach County. Moore said that after every election he and two other workers in the supervisor's Riviera Beach warehouse empty each machine of chads. He said they apply a protective silicone spray to the rubber backing of each of the 5,000 machines and check for problems. The machines are stored in an air-conditioned room.

One month before the election, workers begin building the ballots. They assemble the pages, snap them into the voting machines and put them on an assembly line to check them out.

At the end of the line stands Moore. Stylus in hand, he checks each machine. It takes about a week for him to vote 5,000 times on 100 differently styled ballots, tailored for the elections peculiar to each precinct.

"It's checked and checked again," Moore said.

A Post reporter checked a Votomatic and Data Punch machine. There was no apparent difference between the two machines or how the chads were punched. A plastic shield that lies over the ballot guides the stylus into holes by the candidates' names.

"It's pretty idiotproof," Enos said. "But people still find a way to do things that you never would really think of."

Staff writers Christine Stapleton and Robert P. King and researcher Geni Guseila contributed to this story.

marc_caputo@pbpost.com

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