By Aaron Blake - 12/06/06 12:00 AM EST
Democrat Christine Jennings was in Washington over the last two days renewing her call for a revote in her race against Rep.-elect Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), as government and independent reviews failed to support her case.
Jennings said she would do everything she could to see the legal challenge through. She set up shop at Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee headquarters and was to meet with lawmakers including Reps. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.), Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) and Rush Holt (D-N.J.). She was also asking for financial support and continuing to push her case to the news media.
Jennings’s visit came as state officials continued their audit of the touch-screen voting machines in Sarasota County, where an abnormally high number of ballots cast were “undervotes,” meaning they failed to register votes in the congressional race for the 13th District.
The audit has yet to produce any evidence of machine errors, and a review by a local newspaper published Tuesday points to ballot design as the leading cause of the undervotes.
The undervotes numbered about 18,000 in Sarasota County, or 13 percent. That rate is several times higher than the district’s other counties, suggesting something skewed the results on Election Day.
Jennings’s camp says the voting machines malfunctioned and failed to record the votes. It has filed suit to obtain the source codes for the voting machines and is offering hundreds of witnesses who say they experienced problems as they were trying to vote for her.
Members of her team have expressed discontent with the state’s recount, which gave Buchanan a 369-vote win, and now with the audit, and they say the review needs to be independent and include the source codes.
Jennings won Sarasota County 53-47, which suggests that the 18,000 ballots could well swing the election.
“Our experts have to be capable of getting the hardware and the software so that they can tear it apart — just literally tear it apart,” Jennings said. “All I’m concerned about, at this point, is that our voters get an answer and that I get an answer as to what really happened with those machines.”
Jennings said Tuesday that the witnesses include a former governor of Maine.
On Tuesday, the state was reviewing videotape of tests conducted on Friday in which two discrepancies occurred in other races, but not the House race. The machines worked properly during the test, though, and the problems were expected to be attributed to human error.
The Jennings team said that this diagnosis was premature and has been critical of how the tests were conducted, saying they did not mimic actual voting conditions.
“We’ve gone from rubberstamp recount to preordained audit, and now with those events behind us, it’s time to get to some forensic testing that’s meaningful, by outside experts,” Jennings lawyer Kendall Coffey said.
Yesterday, a court date was set for Dec. 15, though it’s too early to tell when a trial might begin. Buchanan is set to be sworn in with the rest of the freshman class on Jan. 3.
Jennings’s case was also undercut by a review of every Sarasota County ballot conducted by investigative reporters at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and published Tuesday. The review concluded that the format of the ballot probably contributed to the large undervote, and a number of election experts are now also saying ballot design was probably the leading factor.
The Herald-Tribune review found that three other counties experienced similar undervotes in the two-candidate attorney general race. The attorney general race was on the same page as the gubernatorial race in those counties, just like the two-candidate House race was in Sarasota County.
The gubernatorial race featured seven options and therefore dominated the screen in the four counties, which all used the same touch screens. The four cases all led to undervotes of more than 10 percent and account for four of the five highest undervotes in federal and statewide races in Florida, according to the Herald-Tribune.
A poorly designed ballot would not be sufficient for a revote, but some experts say the discrepancy is so big that it might not be the only factor.
Jennings lawyer Sam Hirsch said it could contribute to a machine malfunction by having too many options on one page. The screens that included Jennings’s race had more options than any he has seen, he said.
“It’s quite possible that, like with anything else that’s computer-based, if you press it to its maximum capacity, you’re more likely to trigger some kind of glitch or bug,” Hirsch said.
Buchanan spokeswoman Sally Tibbetts said the mounting evidence continues to discount Jennings’s assertions.
“Christine Jennings has built her entire legal case on the premise that the machines malfunctioned,” Tibbetts said. “So she has no case. Her case has been shattered.”