Texas's Hand-Recounting Method May Look Familiar
By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 18, 2000
AUSTIN, Nov. 17-In northeast Texas, a bipartisan group of Smith County
citizens will gather Monday to recount punch-card ballots in a state House race.
The votes were tabulated electronically on election night and the result
was nearly a tie.
Rather than rely on a machine recount to settle the matter, the group will use a method
endorsed in a 1997 law signed by Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
The punch-card votes will be tallied by hand.
To those who have watched TV images of the Florida recount that Bush's
presidential campaign has scorned as inaccurate and subjective-ballot
counters holding punch cards to the light and staring at holes, or inspecting dimpled
or partly dislodged chads, trying to discern what voters had in mind-the scene soon
to unfold in the Smith County Office Building may look familiar.
In determining whether voters chose the Democratic incumbent or the
Republican challenger in Texas House District 5, ballot counters will hold
11,121 punch cards to the light and stare at holes. They will inspect
dimpled or partly dislodged chads, trying to discern what voters had in mind.
"The Texas Election Code is very precise on how it's to be done," County
Clerk Judy Carnes said of the hand-counting procedure, which has been in
effect since the 1980s, long before Bush became governor. "We've had no
problems with it that I can remember."
In the fierce public relations battle surrounding the disputed presidential
election, vote-tallying procedures in Texas became an issue after Bush's
Republican advocates began ridiculing the hand recounts in Florida, calling
them bogus because counties there make up their own rules for examining
punch-card holes and chads.
Democrats eagerly responded by pointing to the law Bush signed in Texas
three years ago, which states that "a manual recount shall be conducted in
preference to an electronic recount" in certain situations. Republicans scoffed,
saying that unlike Florida, Texas has clearly defined, statewide rules for the procedure.
In their rhetoric, both sides leave out important details. Contrary
some Republicans imply, the procedure for manual recounts of punch-card
votes in Texas is not entirely unlike what's taking place in Florida's
Broward and Palm Beach counties. And contrary to what some Democrats imply,
the 1997 bill signed by Bush did not make hand-counting the predominant
method of retallying votes in Texas.
The rules for recounting punch-card ballots by hand are included in
700-page Election Code. The 14 counties (out of 254) that use such ballots
must follow the same guidelines when a candidate requests a recount and
wants it done manually.
"Under the Texas statute, there is a provision for a manual recount,
is subject to uniform rules and objective standards," Bush's chief
representative in Florida, former secretary of state James A. Baker III,
said this week. In Florida, he said, "the electoral board[s] can look at
ballots and subjectively make a determination as to who they think a ballot
that was improperly marked should have voted for.
"This opens up tremendous possibilities for human error. And, indeed,
opens up tremendous possibilities for . . . mischief."
The clear-cut Texas rules that Bush's advocates continually cite are
in Section 127.130 of the code: A vote is to be counted if "at least two corners
of the chad are detached" and "light is visible through the hole."
But they neglect to mention the rest of the section, which leaves room
vote-counters to make judgment calls like those occurring in Florida: A
vote also must be tallied if "an indention on the chad from the stylus or
other object is present and indicates a clearly ascertainable intent of the
voter to vote; or the chad reflects by other means a clearly ascertainable
intent of the voter to vote."
"Our committee will look at those," said Carnes, referring to the 12
registered voters, six Republicans and six Democrats, chosen by a judge to
conduct the hand recount in Smith County. "It'll be up to them to decide."
As for the law Bush signed in 1997, it was not meant to eliminate or
significantly reduce machine recounts of punch-card votes, said Melinda
Nickless, assistant director of elections in the Texas Secretary of State's Office.
She said it resulted from a problem that elections officials sometimes
encountered with races involving three or more candidates. Occasionally,
she said, two losing candidates would request a recount but disagree on
whether it should be done by hand or machine. "We were never clear on what
to do when it happened," Nickless said. So in the mid-1990s, "we went to
the Legislature and said, 'Fix this.'‚"
State Rep. Debra Danburg, a Houston Democrat and chairman of the House
Elections Committee, said the panel learned a great deal about the error
rates of punch-card ballot-counting machines. Danburg is among the relatively
few Americans who knew what a chad was before the presidential election dispute.
"We heard buckets of testimony about hanging chads, dented chads," she said.
Danburg's committee passed the requirement that "a manual recount shall
conducted in preference to an electronic recount" when two losing
candidates disagree on how a recount should be carried out. Because such
instances are rare, Nickless said, the provision has had little effect on
the number of manual recounts in Texas.
The language was a small part of a 48-page omnibus elections bill signed
Bush that made more than 50 changes to the code, only a few of them dealing
with recounts. Although the chad problem was not a major focus of the legislation,
Danburg said, the events of the past 10 days have reminded her of the committee testimony.
"We heard that a lot of seniors don't have their votes counted because
they're delicate with the card," she said. "They don't want to push the
stylus through because they're afraid they'll break the equipment.
"And then the partisans go in, and they ram it through two or three
knock the daylights out of the chad and whole thing."
GOP Backs Hand Recount in Texas Race
Nov. 18 — As Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s campaign lambasted the hand
recount in Florida, a Texas Republican is hoping a manual recount could help win
him a seat in the State House of Representatives. And they’ll be checking chads.
A bipartisan group of residents in Texas’s
northeastern Smith County
will gather Monday to begin counting ballots by hand. But instead of
relying on a machine count, the group will use a method endorsed in a 1997
law signed by Bush.
Republican candidate Bill Hollowell was defeated
in Nov. 7’s election
by incumbent Democratic Representative Bob Glaze of Gilmer.
In the first count, Glaze received 21,496 votes to Hollowell’s 19,416
— winning by 2,080 votes, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
On Monday, the Secretary of State approved Hollowell’s request for a
recount in Texas House District 5, which includes Smith, Upshur and Van
A committee of 12 registered voters, six Republicans and six Democrats
chosen by a judge, will carry out the recount in Smith County. Each of the
three counties will have its own bipartisan recounting committee. The
recount must be completed in all three counties by Nov. 20, said Jane Dees,
spokeswoman for the Secretary of State.
A Texas Voter’s True Intent
To determine voter’s true intent, Smith County ballot counters will
some 11,000 punch cards to the light and stare through holes. They will
inspect partly dislodged, dimpled, and so called “pregnant” chads. Ballot
counting rooms in District 5 are likely to bear a striking resemblance to
the images on television of vote counters examining punch cards in Broward
County, Fla. — one of the four heavily democratic counties in which the
Gore campaign is seeking a manual recount.
Unlike Florida, where ballot counting standards are at individual
counties’ discretion, Texas has a statewide standard for manual counts. The
rules for recounting ballots by hand are included in Texas’s 700-page
Election Code and are similar to the standards currently being used in
Broward County, Fla.
The recount standards, signed into law by Bush in 1997, state “a
manual recount shall be conducted in preference to an electronic recount.”
Florida’s 25 Electoral College votes could determine this year’s
presidential election. With unofficial numbers from Oregon and New Mexico,
Gore currently leads Bush in the Electoral College tally 267 to 246, with
only Florida undecided.
The statute concerning manual recounts is in section 127:130 of the
Election Code, which says a vote must be counted if “at least two corners
of the chad are detached” and “light is visible through the hole.”
It must also be counted if “an indentation on the chad from the stylus
or other object is present and indicates a clearly ascertainable intent of
the voter to vote” or the chad “reflects by other means a clearly
ascertainable intent of the voter to vote.”
Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who is overseeing the
Bush campaign’s recount monitoring efforts in Florida, defended the Texas
manual recount provision last week by saying it is subject “to uniform
rules and standards.”
By contrast, he said in Florida, “the manual vote count sought by the
Gore campaign would not be more accurate than an automated count. … Human
error, individual subjectivity and actions to ‘determine the voter intent,’
would replace precision machinery.”
The language in the Texas law was part of a 48-page elections bill
signed by Bush that made more than 50 changes to the code, only a few of
them dealing with recounts.
The law Bush signed in 1997 was never intended to eliminate or
significantly reduce machine recounts of punch-card votes, according to an
article in The Washington Post.
Apparently, it resulted from problems election officials faced in
races involving three or more candidates.
Occasionally, two losing candidates would request a recount but could
not agree on whether it should be hand or by machine.
Elections officials asked the Legislature for a solution. The 1997 law
emerged from that, Melinda Nickless, assistant director of elections in the
Texas Secretary of State’s office, told The Post.