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Vote Disparity Still a Mystery In Fla. Election For Congress

Observers watch as Florida election employees test one of Sarasota County's touch-screen voting machines during an audit. No problems were found.
Observers watch as Florida election employees test one of Sarasota County's touch-screen voting machines during an audit. No problems were found. (By Steve Nesius -- Associated Press)

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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 29, 2006

SARASOTA, Fla., Nov. 28 -- Almost since the time the votes were tallied here on election night, the race for Florida's 13th Congressional District has been surrounded by a contentious mystery:

Why were there no votes for Congress recorded from more than 18,000 people who chose candidates in other races?

The answer is central not only to the outcome of the election, which for now has been won by Republican Vern Buchanan by a mere 369 votes and is in litigation, but also to the ongoing debates over whether the electronic voting systems in use nationwide can yield reliable tallies and recounts. Coincidentally, the latest dust-up has occurred in the contest for the seat being vacated by Katherine Harris, who presided over Florida's election apparatus during the much-disputed 2000 contest between President Bush and former vice president Al Gore.

So far, there are three theories, and lots of political and legal posturing.

Maybe, as scores of voters have claimed, there were glitches with the touch-screen systems and they dropped votes.

Or maybe voters overlooked the congressional race simply because of a confusing ballot design.

Or maybe, as some say, an astoundingly high number of Sarasota County residents decided to forgo voting in the high-profile race.

On Tuesday, as state election officials here ran a mock election to test the machines for defects, there were no clear answers. By evening, as clerical workers input votes, no major problems were reported with the machines, but the review will continue through the week.

"Our analysis of the results shows that something went very wrong," said Kendall Coffey, an attorney for Buchanan's challenger, Christine Jennings. He played down the significance of the tests, saying they did not faithfully replicate the voting because the state clerical workers were presumably more adept at the machinery than voters in general would be.

Hayden Dempsey, an attorney for Buchanan, said: "There is nothing wrong with the machines, as these tests show."

The essence of the dispute arises from the fact that once all the votes were counted in the Nov. 7 election, a troubling anomaly appeared in the tally.

More than 18,000 people who had voted in other contests did not have selections recorded in the congressional race.

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