In the digital universe, every bit makes a difference. In a democracy, every vote counts. Punched card ballots are where these two universes coincide. On November 4, 1997, in Ferndale, Washington, the difference between two candidates for city council came down to one bit of difference on one card.
"There's not much case law on this," argues Frank J. Chmelik. "The responsibility of the canvassing board is to certify that universe of ballots that make up the count. A recount is to re-count the ballots. It doesn't make any sense to expand the universe of ballots. It would frustrate the purpose of the law to allow the recounting of an infinite set of ballots. It may have been in a sealed envelope but it was in a white envelope, not a pink envelope." It is December 19, 1997 and I am in Whatcom County Superior Court, listening to arguments before Judge Michael Moynihan in the matter of Yvonne Goldsmith vs. the Whatcom County Canvassing Board. Yvonne Goldsmith came in one vote ahead of Lloyd Zimmerman in the race for Ferndale City Council on election night. After a mandatory manual recount and the discovery of a lost ballot, she is now one vote behind. Her lawyers have appealed for a second recount, this time by machine. Said machine to be a Documation card reader, one of the models now built by Cardamation of Phoenixville, Pennsylvania — if the appeal is upheld. Right now the lawyers are arguing over whether to include an absentee ballot — discovered in a sealed envelope at the time of the first recount — whose validity depends in part on whether the envelope it turned up in was white or pink.
"It doesn't make any sense for a subsequent computer recount to supersede the manual recount," argues Karen Frakes on behalf of Whatcom County Auditor Sheila Forslof, returning to the issue of human beings vs. machines. "We have no reason to believe the computer recount will be any different."
Chmelik, however, cites chapter and verse of a statute (RCW 29.64.010) which "allows for second recount upon application by the candidate, who may specify such recount be done manually or by (electronic) vote tally machine. Goldsmith has a right to an electronic recount that will control."
Judge Moynihan, who is reading the fine print, refers to a clause (RCW 29.62.050) which "stipulates `a recount by machine shall use separate and distinct programming.' Can you explain?" Chmelik explains how the vote counting software will be freshly installed (under Windows 95) from a copy delivered from the State Capitol under official seal.
After some deliberation the judge decides: "They have to count that ballot. As to whether or not the candidate is entitled to an electronic or manual recount — she's entitled to make that choice. If there's a discrepancy, well, it will probably have to be decided by another court."
The recount (by machine) is scheduled for Tuesday, December 23, at 9:00 a.m. I arrive at the Whatcom County Courthouse at the appointed time and am ceremoniously signed into the room. No one, as far as I can tell, has ever heard of Wired magazine. The Bellingham Herald, a few blocks away, hasn't bothered to send a reporter but is awaiting the results by phone. The card reader sits facing the end of a long boardroom table, with various officials arrayed on either side. The reader is hooked up to an IBM 300GL PC, with the "separate and distinct programming" occupying an external Iomega Zip Drive. The software, produced by Computer Elections of Benicia, CA, is up and running under Windows 95.
Pete Griffin, elections supervisor, is fiddling with the card reader. He's proud of how much the machine cost and that it's recently been factory rebuilt. A number of minor dignitaries are present, as well as representatives for the two candidates and two official scrutineers. Lots of sealing and unsealing of metal boxes containing the ballots, with forms signed and witnessed in triplicate every time a deck of punched cards makes a move. The card reader is fired up. It runs through a series of "Logic and Accuracy" test decks from the Secretary of State. The results are compared with the results from election night, when the Logic and Accuracy decks were placed under the seals we just removed. It's a cryptic process, and we all just take the word of Peter Griffin that the string of characters generated on the monitor means everything's OK. The reader flutters smoothly through the piles of cards without missing a single beat — far smoother than the readers I saw at Cardamation, being tested against cards that had been stored for many years.
Finally, it's time to count the ballots. It doesn't take long, a few minutes at most. We all hold our breath. The manual recount was repeated three times, under strict supervision, and all three counts showed Zimmerman one vote ahead. Is this the moment of truth? I'm watching the floor under the machine, to see how many bits of "chad" — the card stock that is punched out to make a hole — fall out when running through the decks. Occasionally, in running through the vacuum-fed reader at high speed, a bit will be dislodged from a ballot. This is a problem with partially pre perforated ballots — and human beings who sometimes start to punch out one location and then change their mind. As Larry Olsen, the Republican observer, whispers to me when he senses what I'm thinking, "If chad falls out there's no way to put it back."
I count nine bits of chad on the carpet after all the ballots are run. The chad may just have fallen innocently out of the innards of the machine, it may have fallen out of any number of punch positions which had nothing to do with the city council race, or one or more bits might have fallen out of the Zimmerman-Goldsmith positions. Who knows? The seconds tick by, and I am acutely conscious at this instant that language and reality sometimes coincide: in the punched card universe a "bit" really is a bit, and Gregory Bateson's definition of information as "any difference that makes a difference" is true indeed, as we await the count of how many bits of difference between card and not-card have just passed through the Cardamation machine. Pete Griffin sits down at the PC, enters some commands, navigates through some dialog boxes, and a Hewlett-Packard laser printer begins to hum. It's a tie: 954 to 954. The statistics show one "overvote" — a ballot where both candidates have received a vote. Someone asks Goldsmith's representative if she would like to run the cards again. No.
The auditor consults the Laws of the State of Washington and announces that the election will now be decided by flipping a coin. The candidate who filed first — Goldsmith — gets to call it heads or tails. Three days later, Judge Moynihan tosses a 1921 silver dollar in the air. Goldsmith calls it tails — and wins. Goldsmith gets the seat on City Council, while the Judge awards Zimmerman the coin. The "Logic and Accuracy" decks go back, under seal, to the Secretary of State. We live in a binary universe — and what isn't governed by logic is governed by chance.