Election controversy hits Florida, again
Sarasota recount is complicated by electronic voting systems. One solution: Bring back paper.
SARASOTA, FLA.; AND BOSTON
The Sunshine State is once again the scene of a messy election controversy, and residents of Sarasota, an affluent beachside community, aren't the least bit amused.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
More than a month after polls closed, the certified loser for the congressional seat is refusing to concede, given an extraordinary wave of ballots with no vote cast in that race and a margin of victory as skimpy as a bikini.
But determining just what went wrong, if anything, has proved difficult given the voting machines involved: touch-screen computers with no printout for voters to confirm. The problems roiling Florida's 13th Congressional District may be one reason that a federal advisory board on Tuesday recommended that the next generation of electronic voting machines be "software independent." In essence, that means creating an independent auditing trail.
Thus, six years after a messy presidential election forced Florida and many states to spend millions of dollars to bring in electronic voting systems, an influential elections panel is urging better-designed systems that may bring back an element of paper. The recommendations will inform new guidelines drawn up in 2007 by the Elections Assistance Commission, of which the panel is a part. Nearly 40 states require that their voting systems meet those guidelines.
"What needs to be figured out [now] is what can we cobble together for a medium-term solution that is not too expensive," says Steven Hertzberg of the Election Science Institute, an election research group based in San Francisco. Then, "we need to innovate in this industry."
So far in Florida's 13th District, there's no evidence that the machines malfunctioned. Sarasota County has already done a machine and a manual recount. Neither significantly budged Republican Vern Buchanan's 369-vote lead over Democrat Christine Jennings. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune has also reviewed every ballot cast.
But suspicions remain because 18,000 ballots, or 13 percent of the votes cast, recorded no votes in the congressional race.
"It's a huge embarrassment," says Ron Basescu, a local resident who had trouble voting. After filling out his ballot on the county's touch-screen machines, which were installed in 2002, a review screen showed that he had either skipped the congressional race or his vote was not recorded. He went back and filled it in. The same thing happened to his wife. Now, he's not sure if their votes really counted.
"If 18,000 people don't cast a [complete] ballot, there must be something wrong," he says. "There should be a revote."
In the manual recount, officials printed out the records of each vote cast, says county elections supervisor Kathy Dent. Undervotes were found in all county precincts, she adds.
But the paper trail is suspect because it's not independent of the software. So if the computer system malfunctioned, this paper trail might have an error, and the voter is no longer there to catch it.