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Hanging chads not a worry in Utah

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Worried about tomorrow's election? Having nightmares about hanging chads and ballots that look like Afghan road maps?

Don't be.

Amy Naccarato has everything under control.

Amy is the director of elections for the state of Utah, aka the election referee. Not that you'd know it just by looking at her. She doesn't wear a striped shirt, doesn't carry a whistle or a yellow flag and almost never raises her voice.

Pleasant and personable, she looks a lot more like a college student, which she was not all that long ago, having graduated with a political science degree from the University of Utah in 1994.

Amy's first job in state government was in the governor's office; after that she moved to the Elections Office as a voter outreach worker. When the director moved on about four years ago, there she was. It's what you know and who you know.

Far from pretentious about her position or her meteoric rise to power, however, Amy says it's not all that difficult to oversee Utah's elections for the simple reason that they are so well-organized.

If Florida had just been Utah two years ago, she says, to this day no one in America other than the occasional election judge would be able to define the term "hanging chad."

Utah's secret? Everyone involved with the election process talks to everyone else.

"I have to say, when I first took this job and started traveling to other states, I was surprised to see how unique we are," says Amy. "Our election clerks talk to each other all the time."

It's not that way in a lot of states.

Florida, for example.

Utah uses essentially the same punchcard election system that got Florida in so much trouble with Bush and Gore and everyone else in 2000.

But as Amy points out, Utah does things to ensure punchcards work at full efficiency.

Basically, there are two keys to good punchcard function. One is a tactic called "cleaning the machine," which calls for regularly clearing out the well in the bottom of the punchcard machines where the chads fall. The other is "fluffing." That's where election officials called "fluffers" brush each ballot to make sure all hanging chads are flicked off before the ballot is counted.

In 2000, Florida didn't clean many of its machines and it didn't have fluffers.

"When I heard that I just went, 'What?!' " says Amy.

She also wasn't too surprised when Florida continued to have problems despite switching from punchcard to electronic machines in this year's primaries.

"There is just such a huge learning curve when you change," she says. "When something went wrong, nobody knew what to do."

Florida's presidential election debacle left what Amy calls "this perception that punchcards are bad. If the election doesn't work, blame them. But punchcards work fine, especially for a smaller state like ours."

In the opinion of Utah's election ref, "there's no such thing as a perfect election — the challenge is how you deal with the problems."

In a way, Florida's problems have actually helped the rest of us, Amy says.

"People now know that hanging chads are not a good thing," she says. "So they will be more careful with their hole-punching."

And that could make tomorrow run even smoother.

Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.