The state of the Union rests on the state of Chad

The Recount

You thought it was a country in Africa. Sometimes, in this country especially, it is a man's name. But here in south Florida, a different sort of "chad" has leapt to the top of everyone's lexicon, with all its variations, such as "pregnant chad" and "dimpled chad".

You thought it was a country in Africa. Sometimes, in this country especially, it is a man's name. But here in south Florida, a different sort of "chad" has leapt to the top of everyone's lexicon, with all its variations, such as "pregnant chad" and "dimpled chad".

The chad, in case you were wondering, is the little rectangle of partly perforated card meant to drop off when a hole is punched but sometimes doesn't.

Chads have become our obsession. We are living and breathing the pesky things. If the difference between a "hanging chad" and a "swinging door chad", eludes you, for example, you are in serious trouble. And so, for that matter, is democracy in America.

Nowhere was it more critical than in the offices of Theresa LePore, Palm Beach County elections supervisor, at the weekend. It was in this small room, separated from the rest of the world by big glass windows, that an initial hand-count was made of 1 per cent of the votes cast in the County on Tuesday night. It went on for almost 12 hours.

The scene was as comical as it was grave. A process that repeatedly veered close to pandemonium was potentially going to decide - at last - the American election.

At first, they couldn't even get started. Everything was in place by early morning. Long wooden tables and folding metal chairs were ready for the 17 ballot counters, all of them women. Waiting to oversee the count were lawyers from the two parties and the three members of the county canvassing board.

Not until almost 1pm did a sheriff's van, bearing the metal ballot boxes from four of the County's precincts, sweep into view, to be swallowed by the scrum of awaiting media. Finally, the ballots, 4,600 of them, were delivered inside.

The task was straightforward - or at least it was meant to be. When voters prick the little punch holes on the ballot cards, sometimes they don't push all the way through. When that happens, electronic counting machines can miss a hole and therefore a vote. A hand-count is meant to allow for the visual detection of these semi-punched holes.

All started well. The commission had agreed on a light-test standard. Each card was held up to a fluorescent lamp. If light shone through the spot for a particular candidate, a post-it note was attached and it was added to that candidate's pile. Each counter had a third pile for ballots they still weren't sure about.

Then the arguments erupted and we entered deep chad territory. About two hours into the count, the canvassing board - Ms LePore, a local judge and the county commissioner - changed the rules. The status of a vote was to depend on the status of the chad.

Getting to the moon would have been quicker than explaining this change to the assembled journalists, who received regular but mostly inaudible briefings from a county spokesman who himself was evidently confused. But, really, it wasn't that difficult.

In brief: a "pregnant" or "dimpled chad" was one bearing an indentation left by the voter but which had not become detached at any of its corners. Those would not be counted as votes. Other chads with one corner, two corners or three corners detached - "hanging door", "swinging door" and "tri-corner" chads respectively - would be counted.

With the outcome of the election potentially in the balance, the atmosphere inside the room was charged. Several minutes would be spent on a single card, with the board members and the lawyers holding it at every conceivable angle before agreeing on which kind of chad they were in reality studying.

One of the canvassing board members was heard to sigh: "I'm losing it, I tell you," at one point. There was hardly a moment throughout the whole process when one of the counters or lawyers was not raising a hand with a question or an objection.

An exhausted Judge Charles Burton blurted at another: "I have had 44 objections in, like, 30 seconds." Finally, in the early hours, the bad news came. Bad if you were a county official or a weary reporter but good for Al Gore. The count had yielded a net gain of 19 votes for the Democrat - 33 in all - to warrant a hand count for all 462,000 votes cast in the county last Tuesday. That should start today. Yesterday, Palm Beach County rested.

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