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'Hanging chads' often viewed by courts as sign of voter intent

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- How should Florida count its presidential ballots? If officials in the Sunshine State follow the trend in other states, they'll count those "hanging chads" or even "bulging chads" as votes.

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Punch-card ballots are notorious for inaccuracies. CNN's Brooks Jackson takes a look (November 16)

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After the state court session on Florida's hand recounts, Gore attorney David Boies spoke with the press (November 16)

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The most dramatic recent example is a 1996 Democratic primary for a House seat in Massachusetts. The state's seven-member Supreme Judicial Court scrutinized over 956 disputed ballots and declared Rep. William Delahunt, a Democrat, the winner by counting ballots that were merely dimpled -- and the chad not dislodged.

"If the intent of the voter can be determined with reasonable certainty from an inspection of the ballot ... effect must be given to that intent and the vote counted," the Massachusetts court ruled.

It said a voter who failed to push out the chad completely "could have done a better job expressing his or her intent. (But) Such a voter should not automatically be disqualified."

And that's been the trend. A 1990 case in Illinois hinged on 30 partially punctured punch-card ballots to determine the Republican primary winner in a race for the state legislature. The Supreme Court of Illinois looked at the disputed ballots and counted them.

"Nothing in our election code ... requires voters to completely dislodge the chad from the ballot before their vote will be counted," the court ruled.

In a 1987 Alaska case, the court counted punch-card votes marked with a pen rather than punched out. A 1981 Indiana case counted "hanging chads" on the grounds they indicated voter intent.

"Anything you cannot clearly determine, you set aside. And if the contest is still where you can't decide who wins, then you put that group of ballots in front of a judge and let a judge make a decision," said Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, a non-profit group.

State courts often count ballots where election administrators don't see clear voter intent, but not always. A 1984 Louisiana case refused to count punch-card ballots merely marked with a pencil.

But in other cases, courts look closely for voter intent. In a dramatic case from South Dakota, one judge examined two disputed ballots under a microscope. The county-level race in question came down to a single bit of bulging or "pregnant" chad, with only two corners detached.

The South Dakota Supreme Court declared a vote "shall be counted if the voter's intent is sufficiently plain." The race was declared a tie. The winner was determined by a game of poker --- which the Republican candidate won with a pair of tens.

What Florida courts do remains to be seen. The trend in other states might be summed up by that Illinois decision, which declared that "voters are the owners of the government."


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Thursday, November 16, 2000

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