If you were of news-consuming age 17 years ago, when then-Vice President Al Gore and then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush ran for president, you also remember the controversy over counting votes in Florida, and how the most contentious element of that election was a tiny piece of paper called a chad. Republican and Democratic election lawyers argued over which paper ballots in Florida should, and should not be counted, based on “hanging chads” and “pregnant chads” that made the voters intention unclear.
Today, the Commonwealth of Virginia finds itself revisiting the issue of ballots whose markings make the voter’s preference uncertain. In a race for the House of Delegates, the vote totals are so close that the winner could be determined by drawing a name from a hat. Because of changes made to election systems in the wake of Bush v. Gore, Virginia thought it had ballot procedures in place that would avoid this very predicament.
Rebecca Green, the co-director of the Election Law Center at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia says that in the wake of the 2000 election, Virginia officials created standards by which they could judge a voter’s intention in the event of a close election and recount.
“The idea is, if you have partisan actors agreeing before the fact what constitutes voter intent, that will take the partisanship out of the problem during a recount,” Green says.
In the current Virginia race, though, in which the Republican and Democratic candidates received the same number of undisputed votes, the parties are disputing whether one voter’s ballot should be counted. It includes votes for a number of Republican candidates, but in the race in question, the voter chose both House of Delegates candidates. The Virginia handbook created after Bush v. Gore doesn’t offer a definitive guideline for ruling in this case.
“You have to do a lot of guessing to figure out what the voter intended here,” Green says.
Like Virginia, Texas created a handbook for evaluating confusing ballots, Green says. But the voting machines funded after the 2000 election are growing old, and funding hasn’t been provided to most states to acquire new ones.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.