Looking for 18,000 missing votes in Florida

Did electronic voting machines cost a Democrat her seat in Congress?

Published November 14, 2006 12:45AM (EST)

Officials in Florida's 13th Congressional District have begun recounting the votes cast there in a race whose margin of victory was fewer than 400 votes. The recount is expected to take a week, but computer scientists aren't optimistic that it will get to the root of the problems experienced by voters in the district's Sarasota County, where more than 18,000 votes may have mysteriously disappeared.

Among all the reports logged last Tuesday by election-protection hotline numbers, the most serious complaints were from voters in Florida's Sarasota County, where the vagaries of the electronic voting process may have determined the outcome of the election. As a result, Democrat Christine Jennings has not conceded, even though Republican Vern Buchanan has already declared victory.

In Sarasota County, 18,000 voters -- fully 13 percent of people who voted -- did not cast a ballot for either Buchanan or Jennings, a huge "undervote" when compared to the adjacent counties, where the percentage of voters not casting a ballot in the same race was about 2 percent. Some election officials have suggested that those voters in Sarasota intentionally chose not to cast a vote in that race, as a protest against an ugly campaign. But the unusually high undervote rate compared to the neighboring counties makes that highly unlikely: "The idea that this is some kind of protest vote simply makes no sense," says Mark Lindeman, a political scientist at Bard College.

Many Sarasota County voters complained to election officials and watchdog groups about the ES&S iVotronic machine, which shows voters a review screen to check over their ballot before submitting it, but leaves no paper trail. Some voters reported that when they viewed the machine's summary screen, no candidate had been checked in the Buchanan-Jennings race, so they had to recast that vote. How many other voters had the same problem, and just didn't notice, hastily paging through the review screen? Simply recounting the votes cast won't solve this mystery, either, because it's impossible to determine a voter's intent if a vote wasn't cast. "I think a recount would not be likely to uncover anything," says Douglas Jones, a computer scientist at the University of Iowa.

Experts have several theories about what could have gone wrong in Sarasota. Perhaps the ballot was poorly designed, so it was easy to simply overlook that race on the touch screen. Or, maybe there was actually a problem with the machines' malfunctioning: "It could be the machine actually lost the vote somewhere in between the voter's finger and the review screen," says David Dill, a professor of computer science at Stanford University. Notably, in the state attorney general's race, there were similarly large undervotes in three of the other counties in Florida that use the iVotronic machines.

How could officials really get to the bottom of what went wrong in Sarasota County? For starters, says Jones: "You need someone to get out those machines and demo the ballots on multiple machines." Then, it could become apparent if the race was simply easy to miss because of a user-interface problem. But to determine whether votes were actually lost somewhere between the voters' casting them and the review screen would require recruiting volunteers to replicate the problem on the very same machines, argues Dill.

A team from Florida Department of State is observing the recount, and preparing to audit it. As it stands, watchdog groups are skeptical that the state government's investigation will be conclusive. Ben Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause Florida, a nonpartisan election watchdog group that has called for a nonpartisan independent investigation, says: "Having government investigate the problem is kind of questionable, because the government may be part of the problem. If there was any attempt to manipulate these machines for partisan purposes, it could well be government officials doing that." For what it's worth, the feds are also getting involved: The Committee on House Administration has also announced its own plans to investigate.

In the meantime, both Buchanan and Jennings are now attending freshman orientation in Washington.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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