By BRIAN KELLY
Chads, it seems, need a helping hand sometimes. At least in Island County, anyway.
With the nation’s attention transfixed on ballot recounts in Florida, lawyers, pundits, party strategists and just about everybody else have debated the degrees of separation needed for chads, those bits of cardboard knocked out when a ballot it punched.
A circuit judge in Palm Beach County said Wednesday that dimpled ballots — those with chads that have buckled but not broken free — could be considered in the manual recount of votes.
Island County also uses a punch-card ballot, but improperly punched ballots haven’t been a problem, Auditor Suzanne Sinclair said.
"I haven’t had anyone say I pushed at it and couldn’t get it out," she said.
Election workers also inspect the ballots before the cards are fed into a counting machine. And they will gently rub the ballots with a swipe of the hand to knock away any loose chads.
Just feeding the ballots into the counter with dangling or hanging chads can gum up the machine, Sinclair said.
Still, there is a standard on what sort of chads are good or bad.
"Our standard is at least two corners need to be broken in order to be a vote," Sinclair said.
But that doesn’t mean the dimpled chads are discarded.
Like other counties, a three-member canvassing board reviews questionable ballots and determines if they should be counted. If the voter’s intent can clearly be seen in the ballot, it’s counted.
In Island County, the canvassing board is made up of the auditor, the prosecuting attorney and a member of the board of commissioners.
But most of the board-reviewed ballots pose problems because of other reasons, such as late postmarks, Sinclair said. The canvassing board reviewed 101 ballots this election, out of 33,553 cast. A total of 42 had not been signed, while 43 had late postmarks.
No elections in Island County have ever hinged on a hanging chad, Sinclair said. And 16 of Washington’s 39 counties use punch cards.
"It’s up to each county to decide what type of system it wants to buy," said David Brine, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office.
Island County uses a ballot card reader, which looks like a big, old electric typewriter. The county bought two of the machines last year; one serves as a backup. Altogether, both the ballot card readers, and the computer and software that compiles the votes, cost about $35,000.
A single optical-scan reader costs about $125,000, Sinclair said.
Even though much attention has been placed on problems with punch ballot machines, optical scanners aren’t perfect, either. Marks made too lightly, or too heavy, are sometimes misread by those machines, Sinclair said.
"My feeling is they both have advantages and disadvantages. For us, the remaining determinant was cost," she said.
The great debate over chads and recounts has heightened citizen understanding of the election process. But given Island County’s turnout — at 84 percent, one of the highest in the state — residents were already keenly interested in the election.
"This is the highest (turnout) they’ve ever had in Island County, even for a presidential election," Sinclair said. "I think it lends credibility to the election process. It makes people feel that there is a true reflection of the public will."
Most voters didn’t want to trek to the polls, though. More than half of the county’s registered voters asked for an absentee ballot, Sinclair said. And there was a jump of 5,000 new absentee voters in the time between the primary and general elections.
"There’s a lot of feeling about this election, so you had an emotional platform that brought people out," she said.
The seemingly never-ending election has had its benefits, however.
"It has generated a lot of interest in the voting process and the election process, and I think those are good things," Sinclair said.
"It’s taken a real emotional toll on the people who are closely involved, candidates and election staff, but the good news about it is that there’s nobody over the age of 7 in Island County who don’t realize that every vote counts, and that it’s important to participate."
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