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Consortium counts ballots once more in Florida

TAMPA, Florida (CNN) -- Once more we go to Florida, land of sunshine, orange groves, and yes, presidential ballots. Not for a recount this time, but for a systematic evaluation of what's really on those troublesome bits of cardboard and paper.

A news media consortium -- CNN along with the New York Times, Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and others -- has hired the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center (NORC) to examine by hand all Florida "undervotes."

Undervotes are ballots that registered no vote for president when run though automatic counting processes. NORC counters are also looking into all "overvotes," or ballots that registered more than one vote for president, rendering them invalid.

NORC is using teams of trained researchers through the long process, not to determine voter intent, but to describe precisely what is on each of those ballots by employing standardized classifications.

"Our codes range from least disrupted to most disrupted," said Diana Jergovic of NORC. "So, for example, the least disrupted chad would be the one that wasn't voted at all. No disruption in the chad; it's not touched. The most disrupted would be a cleanly punched chad. And in between, we have a range."

One corner detached, two corners, three corners -- nine categories for these punch card ballots. Statewide, they are using the same standards, even the same type of light.

"We've trained our coders to look for certain things. So, for example, we've trained them to recognize a dimple, and a dimple with sunlight," Jergovic said.

Each coder got not only the training but also an eye test. Those chads are tiny.

During this project only county officials are allowed to handle the ballots. Three observers each make their own calls, noting what they see. A team leader sees that those observations are numbered consistently. But there is no talking.

"They are providing us with independent judgments, and so they not to talk while they are coding," Jergovic said, pointing out the process is much like taking a multiple-choice test.

Also at each table is an observer from the Republican Party. They say these votes have been counted enough, and they are here monitor the process. Here in Hillsborough County, however, officials never counted any of the votes by hand.

"We're here, in a main sense, to observe the way the media is interpreting these ballots," said Stephanie Housel of the Florida Republican Party.

This is a big job, and it will not be done quickly. There are about 180,000 ballots to examine in 67 counties. Even with 20 teams working, the process will take weeks to complete.

Nearly 60 percent of those ballots are so-called Votomatic punch card ballots, prone to problems such as "dangling chads."

But optically scanned ballots like the ones from Polk County, Florida, are also being examined. They have problems, too. For example, machines failed to count ballots where voters failed to mark inside the required oval.

"It's considered technically an undervote, because the machine didn't see any reading in the presidential race, yet most people would agree the person voted," said Polk County Election Supervisor Lori Edwards. "And you can see how they voted. And that's where you just can't replace human beings."

So, when it's over, what does this project expect to uncover?

"We're not down here trying to decide what a vote is. We're here trying to say sort of systematically what's on these ballots. How many of them have something you might characterize as a dimple?" said Ford Fessenden of the New York Times. "How easy are these dimples to see?"

Other news organizations are also examining Florida's ballots statewide, but only undervotes, not overvotes.

"I think overvotes are an important part of this process and certainly distinguish this ballot accounting effort from other accounting efforts that have been under way," said Eason Jordan, CNN president of newsgathering.

The results of the consortium's investigation eventually will be posted on the Internet.

Journalism has been called a "first rough draft of history." This could well be an important footnote to history.

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