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Who Knew

'84 race called punch ballots into question

By Scott McCabe, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 10, 2000

Before the Year of the Chad, we had the "60-40 syndrome."

Sixteen years ago, before Al Gore or George W. Bush carried White House hopes, before the dimpled chads and butterfly ballots bogged the presidential election process, candidates challenged the validity of the computer punch-card system that's under heavy scrutiny today.

Computer and elections experts testified around the country that the punch-card computer program could secretly be altered, disenfranchising one-third of the voters in the 1984 election.

Protesters cried theft. Losers begged for manual recounts. Lawsuits bounced court to court. And, at the last minute, a state legislature stepped in to effectively quash any legal remedy.

The New York Times and The New Yorker magazine delved into the allegations with front page pieces.

And the story, at least part of it, traveled right to where the latest tale began: Palm Beach County.

David Anderson was 54 when he was stomped by a 60 percent to 40 percent margin in his bid to unseat Palm Beach County Property Appraiser Rebecca Walker. Pre-election polls showed that his race should have been close, nearly a 50-50 split.

Republicans alleged that there were 18 irregularities in the vote count, including one precinct where 61 voters cast 150 ballots.

When the canvassing board denied their request for a manual recount, Anderson sued.

"Turning over my races was impossible," he said, "I just wanted to get rid of those computers."

He charged that the election had been run on "machines that permit a means of changing the result on the ballots contrary to the votes cast by the electors through an alter system in the commands in the computer program."

One tip-off, Anderson said at the time, was the "60-40" vote split in races for county constitutional offices. The four incumbents all captured between 59 and 63 percent of the vote. Anderson said such a margin was too uniform to be credible. He called it the "60-40 syndrome."

He wanted to see the computer program. But lawyers from the manufacturer, Computer Election Systems, obtained a court order blocking him: It "would breach the security of the system, and thereby cast doubt upon the results of C.E.S. election programs" all over the United States. The circuit court eventually tossed his case.

The Florida Legislature piled on the very next day, introducing a bill to protect government computer programs from public access. Anderson's fight here was over.

Meanwhile, candidates in Indiana, West Virginia and Maryland went further than Anderson. They accused C.E.S. and the election supervisors of conspiring to fix elections. The program was such a mess of computer code, they argued, that a person could plug into the counter a ballot-like IBM computer card that can reprogram the machine and alter an election's outcome. And no one would know.

The courts wouldn't listen. Anderson joined a Washington, D.C., freelance reporter, traveling around the country warning state attorneys general against using the punch-card computer system.

They also lobbied Congress to create uniform election standards that prohibited elections offices from using the C.E.S. computer punch-card system. That would be impossible and too expensive, he was told, because every county and state had its own election standards.

"Bush and Gore can count and recount all they want," he said, "but with those computer programs, we'll never know the actual winner."

Staff researcher Madeline Miller contributed to this report.

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