Jennings bullish after pre-election letter shows equipment problems

Christine Jennings’s campaign and its supporters are claiming new life in their quest for a revote after a letter describing equipment problems with Sarasota (Fla.) County’s electronic voting machines surfaced in recent days.

An Aug. 15, 2006, letter to Florida election officials from the Election Systems & Software (ES&S) company described slow response times on the touch-screen machines and suggests the installation of a patch that never was made available.

The Jennings campaign said the letter, reported Tuesday on the Huffington Post blog, shows Florida election officials and ES&S withheld problematic information and calls into question the government-run audit which cleared the machines’ performance.

Jennings contends that a software problem caused 18,000 people in Sarasota County to fail to cast a ballot in the 13th district congressional race that Jennings, a Democrat, lost by 369 votes to now-Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.). Without the undervote, she says, she would have won.

Jennings wants access to the software for a private review. She and groups including People For the American Way (PFAW) are suing in Florida court, and Jennings is contesting the result with the House Administration Committee.

“It’s just a tremendous smoking gun,” the director of PFAW’s Democracy Campaign, David Becker, said. “I think this just begs the question as to what’s really going on.”

The letter was not provided to the Jennings team when it requested all correspondence between Sarasota County and ES&S, Jennings’s attorney, Sam Hirsch, said. It was posted recently to a website.

The letter warns that the iVotronic 12-inch screens were “exhibiting slow response times” and that the equipment “will require an update,” to be certified by the state.

The update was never provided, and a Florida Division of Elections spokesman said the state never contacted ES&S about it. Spokesman Sterling Ivey stressed that the letter was sent late in the election cycle and said the issue didn’t pose a problem for the machines’ functionality and couldn’t have caused the undervote.

The letter states that the problem “in no way affects the integrity or reliability of the iVotronic voting system.”

“The problem was a slow response time,” Ivey said. “It didn’t mean the machines weren’t working.”

Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent said that she withheld nothing from the Jennings campaign and that a poster displayed at polling places was sufficient to overcome the problem described in the letter.

Dent pointed out that the Jennings campaign had a series of e-mails which made reference to the letter and which suggested a poster that would prevent problems with delayed response times.

“We gave them all of the information that we had, and they were very aware of the e-mails we had discussing this poster,” Dent said.

Hirsch said those explanations don’t pass muster.

“If the manufacturer told you the machines weren’t working properly and needed to be patched by Election Day, and you didn’t get the patch within some reasonable amount of time, wouldn’t you go back to them and say, ‘Where the hell is the patch?’” Hirsch said. “It’s peculiar beyond belief and an incredible act of public irresponsibility.”

ES&S said in the letter that the delayed responses were caused by a “smoothing filter,” which was cleared by an audit released last month. The audit made note of speculation on Internet newsgroups that the smoothing filter could have caused the undervote but said it wasn’t to blame.

A spokesman for ES&S, Ken Fields, said the update was not provided because, “due to the upcoming election, the certification process could not have been finalized.” He added that previous reviews “fully demonstrate that the voting technology worked in that election — votes were recorded and tabulated accurately and securely.”

Despite this and the letter’s stating that the problem didn’t affect the machines’ integrity or reliability, Hirsch said he believes the delayed-response problem might have caused the undervote. Jennings has called into question the integrity of the audit.

Hirsch said the case is in a holding pattern while the Jennings campaign waits for a Florida judge to respond to an appeal filed in January. A previous request was denied.

The House Administration Committee said it could not comment on a matter that is in the courts.