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What are Paper Chads?

Paper chads were associated with the 2000 U.S. presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 29 September 2014
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Paper chads are the small pieces of paper created when holes are punched. The term “chad” is also used to refer to detritus left over from punching other thin materials such as textiles, plastic, and sheet metal. Paper chads gained infamy in the United States during the chaotic Presidential election in 2000, but they are also a common byproduct of any industry which punches holes in paper. Since paper chads are small and very lightweight, devising ways to deal with them can be challenging.

The origins of the term are unclear. The use of “chads” to refer to pieces of paper left over from punching dates back to at least the 1920s, and possibly earlier. Companies also market “chadless” punching systems which make slits in the paper without generating paper chads. There are also a number of qualifying terms to describe chads, such as pregnant and hanging chads. Most people with hole punches are familiar with paper chads and their incompletely separated cousins.

Any time a hole is punched in material, the material from inside the hole has to end up somewhere. In industries which do a lot of paper punching, these small fragments of paper can get quite irritating, especially in high volume. For that reason, paper manufacturers often have “chad collectors” under punching tables, to keep floating paper chads on the factory floor to a minimum. These chads can later be recycled into new paper.

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Paper chads are also created when punch cards are made. Punch cards were once extensively used in computer programming as well as in manufacturing things like textiles, and punch card ballots used to be standard for American elections. While punch cards have largely fallen out of use in favor of more advanced technology, many people are familiar with the concept of a punch card, thanks to their once pervasive presence.

When a hole is punched incompletely, it may result in a dimpled or hanging chad. Dimpled chads are also known as pregnant chads, and they are created when a punch fails to fully penetrate the paper, creating a mark or dimple without fully detaching the chad. A hanging chad is created by a partial punch, which successfully creates a hole, but does not fully detach the chad. In the 2000 election, these paper chads became a major bone of contention, forcing manual recounting of punchcard ballots in several areas of the United States.

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