Questions emerge over e-voting in Fla. county

Activists in Sarasota County say 18,000 votes may not have been counted

An estimated 18,000-vote undercount in Sarasota County, Fla., on Tuesday -- possibly the result of a technical error involving the touch-screen voting systems used there -- has prompted voter activist groups to seek an investigation.

The undercount could affect the outcome of the District 13 U.S. House race, where Democrat Christine Jennings is behind her Republican opponent, Vern Buchanan, by just 368 votes. The District 13 seat is now held by Katherine Harris, the controversial former secretary of state of Florida who fell short in her bid to unseat incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.

There have been news reports in recent days that voters had difficulties with the county's iVotronic touch-screen systems, and concerns that the e-voting hardware didn't record votes for the congressional race.

The machines are made by Election Systems & Software Inc. (ES&S) in Omaha.

Jennings posted a statement on her Web site saying that there would be a mandatory recount because of the slim margin separating the candidates. "The supervisor of elections reported today that there were 18,382 under-votes in this congressional race -- that means more than one out of every seven ballots cast did not record a vote for the 13 District Congressional race," Jennings said in the statement. "This is a staggering number. Sarasota voters have been victimized by not having their vote count."

On Nov. 9, the People For the American Way Foundation announced that it had written to Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist (who is now the state's governor-elect) and Florida Secretary of State Sue Cobb about the issue. In the letter(download PDF ), Ralph Neas, the organization's president, urged an independent non-partisan investigation into the matter.

"Numerous voters in Sarasota County have reported that when the summary screen appeared on some of the county's Election Systems & Software voting machines, no vote had been recorded," the group said in a statement accompanying the letter. "Some voters were able to go back and record a vote, but others suspect they were never given a meaningful opportunity to cast a vote in that race."

Neas, in his letter, suggested that the evidence strongly points to "some sort of flaw in the voting machines, perhaps in their design or the graphic presentation on the screen."

Another voter watchdog group, Common Cause of Florida, seconded the call for an investigation. "More than 18,000 voters -- nearly 13% of those who showed up at the polls -- cast votes in other races but not the closely contested House," the group said in a statement released today. "It represents a massive undercount compared to other counties, including Manatee, which reported an undercount of 2%."

"Sarasota County election officials must conduct a revote," Ben Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause's Florida office, said in the statement. "The machines should be impounded, audited and tested to determine if voters were unable to cast a ballot and why. A 13% undercount is unacceptable and this election should not be certified. Sarasota County voters deserve an explanation."

A call to Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent for comment was not immediately returned.

For its part, ES&S said it was not directly involved in the election and has decided it would be "inappropriate" to speculate on the situation. While it did not program the ballots used, the company had been asked to provide technical assistance to the county IT staff if it was needed.

"However, we have been in contact with the supervisor of elections, who has emphasized that the voting equipment functioned well," ES&S said. "The touch-screen system used in Sarasota County provides unlimited opportunity for a voter to make and change selections before a ballot is cast. Therefore, according to the supervisor of elections, under-votes were a result of an intentional choice not to make a selection in the congressional race or unintentional omission of a selection."

A spokeswoman for Cobb said yesterday that a recount would take place if the first set of unofficial results, due on Nov. 12, shows a difference between the candidates of 0.5% or less. "This is mandated by law," she said.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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