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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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The phenomenon of voters casting ballots without making selections in every race is known as "undervoting," and it happens in virtually every big election, particularly in contests for lesser-known offices that some voters ignore.

But the magnitude of the undervoting in the Buchanan-Jennings race was startling -- about 15 percent of those who cast ballots in Sarasota. By contrast, it was about 2.5 percent among voters in other counties.

Jennings has filed a lawsuit alleging that thousands of Sarasota County votes were not counted because of "the pervasive malfunctioning of electronic voting machines." The county tilts in her favor.

The broken-machine theory is backed by two voting experts and scores of sworn statements from voters who had trouble with the machines, Coffey said. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune has reported that more than 100 have reported problems with the machines.

But other experts who have analyzed the ballots and the results argue that the culprit might be not the machines but rather voters confused by a poorly designed ballot.

The congressional race appeared on the same screen as the gubernatorial contest, which had a brighter banner and took up more space.

Ted Selker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a director of the CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project, said that tests in his lab have shown that as many as 60 percent of voters can miss races when they are displayed in such a manner.

If the missing votes were caused by ballot design, that is bad news for the challenger, because it is more difficult under Florida law to challenge an election because of ballot design or voter confusion.

Jennings's legal team has dismissed the idea of a bad ballot.

"I don't see any history to show that, with a highly visible, hotly contested race like this, voters are going to fail to find it on the ballot," Coffey said. "It's just not such an awful ballot design that you can explain the disappearance of 15 percent of the votes."

The final theory, that the missing votes reflect many voters' disgust with the aggressive campaigns, is largely dismissed by many experts. It seems extremely unlikely, they said, that only Sarasota County residents decided not to vote.

Like many here, Joan Tallman, 70, a retired bank vice president, said she was appalled and mystified by the trouble.

"Funky machines? I don't know," she said, shaking her head. "But a lot of those votes didn't count."

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