Q&A: Jennings hails death to touch-screen voting in Florida

She lost a close race for U.S. House in '06, blames tech glitches

Supporters might say congressional candidate Christine Jennings has lived through a politician's worst nightmare: a squeaky-close loss in an election in which the final tally is in dispute because of a technical glitch. Last November, in the race for U.S. House in Florida's 13th District, Jennings, a Democrat, lost to Republican Vern Buchanan by just 369 votes. Simultaneously, there were reports of voting machine malfunctions in Sarasota County, where there were ultimately some 18,000 undervotes. Jennings blamed Sarasota County's iVotronic touch-screen systems, made by Election Systems & Software Inc. (ES&S), and filed suit to overturn the election. While she awaits the outcome of that suit and an Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation, Jennings said this week she is running again for the same seat in 2008. She talked with Computerworld about the 2006 race, e-voting and the fallout from her contested loss. Excerpts from that interview follow:

You're running again in 2008. Does this mean your lawsuit is withdrawn? It does not. I feel I have done all I can regarding what happened last November by giving it to the Government Accountability Office and getting an investigation. I felt I accomplished what I set out to do and now I can focus on 2008.

Things have been moving slowly in court, yes? I think they've been glacially slow. I think I was most surprised in December when we went to court and the judge said this case is based on "speculation and conjecture." I found that almost unbelievable. Two weeks prior to the election, we had voters calling us and the local radio station with [e-voting] problems and the Herald Tribune about problems voting. It wasn't speculation and conjecture. Some of these people were computer specialists and doctors, and for the judge to say that -- I was just stunned by those two words.

You mentioned problems. Can you describe them? First, one lady called our office during early voting on the first or second day. She alerted us there was a problem. She couldn't get an X to appear on the [ballot] screen to select the candidate. And, of course, it didn't appear on the [ballot choice] review screen. This continued day by day. The Herald Tribune weighed in so heavily on this matter in its stories because they, too, had hundreds of phone calls from people who said there was a problem. A few people who had voted for me saw the vote had flipped to Vern. But by far, the problems involved people who could not get the X to appear.

Were you surprised at the scale of the undervote? It was pure shock. Pure shock. 18,000 undervotes. We knew problems were going on. But in no way did I ever conceive in my mind out of 156 precincts, 155 of them would have undervotes of that magnitude. The only precinct without an undervote only had eight voters. Someone took a map of the county and wrote in each of the precinct's number of votes for myself and Vern Buchanan and the undervotes. In some cases, the undervotes came in as the second candidate.

Officially, have you gotten any assistance to understand what might have gone wrong? We are not yet able to get any help resolving the problems. My attorney, Kendall Coffey, made an attempt to see Sarasota County Elections Supervisor Kathy Dent, and she wouldn't talk to him about it.

What now? You're waiting for the GAO report, yes? A congressional task force requested the GAO to give a preliminary report by July 27. The task force cannot dictate the timing. This was requested to have something preliminary prior to the August recess.

Any lesson learned for 2008? There are a couple of things. One of them is the great importance of having more poll watchers. Not workers. And we need to check the design of the ballot -- it should be signed off on before voting starts.

In your speech, you mentioned what had been achieved by your campaign. Were you referring specifically to Gov. Charlie Crist's legislation to ban touch-screen systems in Florida? Yes, to banish e-voting machines in the state, and also here in Sarasota County. Last Tuesday, our county commissioners voted to get rid of ES&S as a company and work with Diebold, and also, of course, to use optical-scan machines. I consider that a victory. It did a lot of good.

How has this experience made you feel? It is extremely frustrating when you find yourself in a circumstance where you believe you won a seat and aren't serving in it. I was a banker for 40 years. I grew up in a world of checks and balances. Literally, as a banker you spend so much time with regulators and doing audits. For me, it was inconceivable there is no real way to audit an election [with touch-screen systems], and there is no paper trail. There are no checks and balances to this system.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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