An Electronic Canary

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, November 24, 2006

Americans can be grateful that Sarasota County is in Florida and not in Montana or Virginia.

There's nothing wrong with Sarasota, a lovely place. But if the voting snafus in the contest for Florida's 13th District had hung up either of this year's two closest Senate races, we still would not know which party had won control of the Senate.

Supporters of new voting technologies have been patting themselves on the back, saying there were no big voting problems this year. Let them go to Sarasota.

Here's the story so far: The official vote count in the battle for -- you won't believe this -- Katherine Harris's seat put Republican Vern Buchanan 369 votes ahead of Democrat Christine Jennings out of roughly 238,000 votes cast.

But in Sarasota County, there was an "undervote" of more than 18,000 -- meaning that those voters supposedly didn't choose to record votes in the Buchanan-Jennings race. Jennings carried the county 53 percent to 47 percent.

The Sarasota undervote in the congressional race amounted to nearly 15 percent. Kendall Coffey, Jennings's lawyer, has pointed out that in the other four counties in the district, the undervote ranged from 2.2 to 5.3 percent. Put another way, roughly 18,000 of the 21,000 undervotes in the contest came from Sarasota County.

It's hard to believe that Sarasota's voters had a different view of the race than voters everywhere else in the district, considering that the undervote on the county's absentee ballots, cast on paper, was only 2.5 percent. The upshot: Any reasonable statistical analysis suggests that only 3,000 to 5,000 of Sarasota's undervotes were intentional, meaning that 13,000 to 15,000 votes were probably not counted.

If you believe that these machines operated properly, then you must also believe that I missed my true vocation as an NBA center.

Imagine if 18,000 votes had just disappeared in either of the key Senate races. Or imagine a presidential election in which the electoral votes of Florida were decisive and the state was hanging in the balance by -- to pick a number that comes to mind -- 537 votes. And, by the way, in 2000 we could at least see those hanging and dimpled chads. In this case the votes have -- poof! -- simply disappeared.

Despite the Sarasota problem, the state Elections Canvassing Commission certified Buchanan's "victory." Jennings has gone to court to demand a new election.

But there is good news here: This is a problem in just one congressional district. Control of the House does not depend on how this race turns out. It is therefore in the interest of both parties, not to mention the country, to be simultaneously aggressive and judicious in figuring out what went wrong in Sarasota and to use that knowledge to fix the nation's voting system before a major disaster strikes. Sarasota is the canary in the electronic coal mine.

On Tuesday, Judge William L. Gary decided not to move the case along quite as fast as Jennings had requested. That will prove to be an excellent decision if the delay is part of an effort to collect every bit of information we can on Sarasota's machines.

Jennings's lawyers have asked the judge to give her campaign full access to at least eight of the voting machines and their software -- a fair request. If the taxpayer-supported companies that sell this equipment are not willing to be 100 percent open about how their machines and their programming work, they should not be allowed to record and count the people's votes.

And if anyone still needs evidence that all electronic systems should provide verifiable paper trails so real ballots are available in the event of a recount, let them go to Sarasota.

If the courts punt, Congress, which has a right to judge the credentials of its members, should get to the bottom of this. It may be asking the impossible, but Democrats and Republicans should not make this a fight about which party picks up one more seat. Instead, they should conduct a joint inquest into this contest to provide a basis for bipartisan legislation creating national standards for improving our voting systems.

The U.S. Supreme Court has insisted that "[h]aving once granted the right to vote on equal terms, the State may not, by later arbitrary and disparate treatment, value one person's vote over that of another." Thousands of voters in the 13th District have an interest in demanding that the system live up to those words, which came from the decision in a little case in 2000 called Bush v. Gore.

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