Feb. 15, 2001
Vol. 20 No. 10

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    NORC examining Florida ballots

    The National Opinion Research Center has begun a major project to examine uncounted ballots in the presidential race in Florida for a group of the nation’s largest news organizations.

    Kirk Wolter, Senior Vice President for Statistics and Methodology and Professor in Statistics, discusses the progress of the process.

    What do you hope to accomplish?

    Our task is pretty straightforward. Our goal is to gather data on the appearance of the ballots for an archive that will be available electronically to the members of the news organization group that is financing the effort, and soon thereafter to the public. We will have recorded how many ballots have dimples, how many have dimples in which light shows through, how many were punched or marked in a way that caused errors, and so forth. We are looking at two columns of votes only: the presidential election and the senator’s race.

    When did the examination begin?

    After several weeks of preparation, we sent NORC staff to Florida in late January and began extensive training efforts of the coders who are examining the ballots. The actual ballot examination began Monday, Feb. 5, and will continue until all of the 180,000 disputed ballots in Florida are examined. That process will take several weeks and will bring us to all counties in Florida.

    Which news organizations are involved and what is their role?

    Supporting the project are The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Tribune Publishing (which includes the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and a number of other newspapers), CNN, the Associated Press, the St. Petersburg Times and the Palm Beach Post. The news organizations will each do individual analyses of the data and prepare reports for publication and broadcast.

    How does the process of ballot examination work in the field?

    In each of the counties, local election officials assign county workers to hold up the ballot, and our team of three coders looks at the individual ballots and mark on a coding sheet what they see. We are looking at the overvotes––ballots in which people voted for more than one candidate, and undervotes, ballots with no votes recorded for president. The team of coders sits side by side, but members work independently of each other and make individual determinations of appearance of the ballots. They do not talk among themselves or consult each other in any way. Each team works with a small light table that helps them determine if there is enough of a hole on dimpled chads for light to show through.

    In addition to the analyses produced by the news organizations, what will be done with the data collected in the archive?

    The recent election in Florida pointed out how the election system can appear to be unreliable. Both machine and hand tabulations produce slightly different results each time the ballots are counted. The variation from pass to pass is a measure of the reliability of the ballot system. Our data could be used to analyze this problem and has the potential for informing state legislatures and developers of ballot systems about reliability issues, pointing the way toward a superior ballot in the future.

    We also expect that scholars will use the information to produce their own analyses from the data.