Features

Vote machine inventor eyes recount from his home in Berkeley

The Associated Press
Friday November 17, 2000

William Rouverol watches the Florida ballot debacle with more than just a passing interest. After all, he designed the voting system at the center of the whole mess. 

“It's sort of a matter of pride,” the 82-year-old retired mechanical engineering professor said in a telephone interview from his home in Berkeley “We tried to consider all aspects of things to try to get the thing to be as foolproof and as tamperproof as possible.” 

Rouverol designed the Votomatic Voting System in the early 1960s with Joseph Harris, a colleague at the University of California at Berkeley. It was created to make use of IBM's porta-punch computer card system. 

When it was unveiled in 1963, then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown said it would “revolutionize the system of voting in California.” 

It did. But as we've all learned these past two weeks, nothing is foolproof. 

Officials in several Florida counties have spent days arguing over bits of paper divots called chads that may have kept the poll machines from properly counting votes. The wrangling has prevented the country from declaring its 43rd president. 

The conflict is most intense in Palm Beach County, where a specially designed “butterfly ballot” has been blamed for confusing some into voting for Reform Party nominee Patrick Buchanan instead of Democrat Al Gore. 

Rouverol and Harris, who died in 1985, had discussed the two-page format when they invented their machine. 

“We were very set on not using both sides of the page, because things that might confuse people, we felt, should have been avoided,” he said. “The butterfly ballot? No way.” 

Rouverol said a programming error in the machines that read the ballots might have caused the mix-up in Palm Beach County. He noted that the county was heavily Democratic and would have been expected to go for Gore in a big way. 

“I can see why there's a pretty good reason why the Republicans are so concerned about the hand recount,” he said. “It sounds to me that the glitch is in the programming, not the butterfly ballot. Whether it's purposeful or accidental, I'm not prepared to say.” 

County officials have maintained that the machines functioned properly, and that human error was to blame for any ballot irregularities. The company that manufactures the actual ballots is also deflecting blame. 

“I don't believe that our ballots are at the center of it,'' said Hugh Webb, general manager of California-based Sequoia-Pacific Systems Corp. “I think that the handling of and the scrutiny that's being given to them is more the attention-getter than the physical object itself.” 

 

Rouverol said the machine's basic design has changed little since its introduction nearly 40 years ago. The standards for manufacturing the ballots also date from the 1960s. 

Rouverol, who turns 83 next week, has gotten away from the voting industry and is focusing more these days on sculpture and improving gearing systems. 

If Harris were alive, Rouverol said he would surely try to step in and help solve the problems. He said it's probably just as well that his perfectionist friend isn't around to see what is happening to his brainchild. 

“He'd be spinning in his grave,” he said.