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Now that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has all patents issued since 1790 available online, it’s easy to check on whether any deal with punch card ballots and the now-infamous chad. A database search reveals no issued patents that contain the words “chad” and “ballot.” But 104 patents contain “vote” and “ballot.” The database contains 46 patents with the phrase “voting machine.” The address is http://www.uspto.gov/patft/index. In 1980, the ’566 patent issued to John E. Ahmann of Napa, Calif., for a “punch frame for data registering device.” Sounds a lot like the kind of voting machine used in Florida and many other places. The device contains a strip “for receiving pinched-out chad pieces.” THE FIRST WAVE In 1984, Election Data Corp., now of Valley Center, Calif., was assigned the ’298 patent for a perforating stylus. According to the patent abstract, this stylus sounds like a better mousetrap that would have come in very handy in Florida. “Chad” is not mentioned, but the device is supposed to cause the punched-out portion of the card “to be completely severed and displaced from the card … eliminating the need to subsequently wipe the card to remove partially severed chips, or punched portions, therefrom.” Florida inventor — also, presumably, Florida voter — Gregory R. Chumbley received the ’383 patent in 1997 for a “device for collecting voting data.” Chads aren’t mentioned, but cards read by the invention are either marked in predetermined areas or punched. The U.S. Federal Elections Commission Web site lists 24 vendors of computerized vote tabulation systems, including one in Canada and one in Colombia. Presumably, after the election mess, other vendors will scramble to join that number, and inventors will be thinking up new ways to provide error-free voting. http://www.fec.gov/pages/vendors.htm. Just 18 months after the first applications are filed, anyone will be able to read them at the patent office’s Web site. Beginning on Nov. 29, under the American Inventors Protection Act of 1999, the PTO must publish all applications 18 months after their effective filing date.

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