The Incredible Shrinking Voting-Machine Expert

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Kimball Brace, left, testifies before Leon County Circuit Judge Sauls

Al Gore's chosen voting-machine expert certainly looked the part.

Kimball Brace, the founder and president of tiny Election Data Services, shambled up to the witness stand of Judge Sanders Sauls' Leon County omnibus hearing-for-the-presidency, bespectacled and bookish, grayed and shaggy — like Pat Caddell's older and even geekier brother. A political scientist by education and a demographer (sort of) by trade, he's also been looking in on the election offices and voting booths of this great nation for 25 years. He'd even brought his own Votomatic, just like they use in Palm Beach, which he'd owned since the '70s. And after a meticulous tour of the punch-card device and how to successfully vote on it, Brace said the words Al Gore yearned to hear:

"Unfortunately, it doesn't always work that way."

The Bush team pounced. They relentlessly questioned the expertise of the expert witness, in which Brace wound up looking like a sort of hobbyist, able to voice his opinions only as "personal observations" based on his long experience in the field. (Or, as Bush lawyer Phil Beck put it disdainfully, "his years of travels.") And then they let him talk.

Observations, he had plenty of. The rubber strips that part for punched chads grew old and stiff over age, he told Gore questioner Stephen Zack. Some styluses were particularly apt to leave chad behind. Some people voted with the card on top of the machine, and only left dimples. Sometimes the chad basin filled up so high that punching through was futile. And Brace never missed an opportunity to tack a Gore talking point at the end of observations. The scanner misses votes, so all the votes in Maimi-Dade must be counted by hand, "the only way of absolutely knowing for sure" who won. Thank you, Kimball.

Cross-examination is a savage business, and Beck came out with teeth bared. Sneering, sardonic, and sometimes downright vicious, Bush's new star went after Brace on the rubber blends used in South Florida ("I don't know"), the name of the machine that tests rubber softness ("I don't know") how many chads make a pile ("I don't know"), and every other technical fine point with which he could stump Brace for Sauls' amusement. "Your opinion as a political science major is that rubber gets harder?" Beck scoffed, the scarcasm dripping. Brace had come in looking like a scientist, and left sounding like a Gore backer who couldn't prove a word he said.

And while he cut away at the technical truth of Brace's claims, Beck did something else — he goosed the passionate and pontification-prone witness into helping the Bush team with its backup plan. As Brace defended the integrity of some dimples, he got Brace to valiantly defend the abilities of canvassing boards to discern dimpled intent. Whoops. Boies, looking for another 600 votes, is also suing for a recount of the hand count in Palm Beach. If Gore's witness for his case in Miami-Dade turns out to be credible, he'll have done some work for Bush in Palm Beach. Beck even got in some hacking at Brace's "proffer" to the Florida Supremes, just to salt the furrows a little.

But, ultimately, commonsense aspects of Brace's claims may make a lasting impression on Sauls. The idea that hanging chad happens — and can fool a machine scanner — is still a valid and sensible argument for a Miami-Dade manual recount, whatever the legal questions involved (that'll come later), and there was no evidence Sauls didn't see it. And when Beck had finished, and wiped the blood off his lips, Gore lawyer Zack made up some lost ground, bringing in a genuine Votomatic whose basin that was "filled to the brim with chad." The intuitive virtues of Brace's testimony were badly wounded, but they survived.

But this being a court of law, it's not likely that Sauls missed the sight of most of Brace's claims wilting under scrutiny. Gore needed a scientist up there, an engineer, not a witness who tried to dig himself out of holes with lines like "a small office called President of the United States" and how a hand count in Miami-Dade being "in accordance with the principles of the country." And not one (this was the very first witness; Gore had a statistician up next, and Bush has a current list of 20) that consumed two and a half hours of a mini-trial whose supposed 12-hour clock is ticking. It wasn't the Bush lawyers that were trying Sauls' patience.

"I understand the principles of the country," Sauls drawled at Brace near the end. "Let's deal with the relevance to this case."