Florida's 13th District Debacle Requires a Re-Vote in Sarasota Today and National Reform Tomorrow

To: Journalists
fr: Ralph G. Neas

With a new Congress set to convene in less than a month, it’s critical to solve the festering problem in Florida’s 13th congressional district by allowing the citizens of Sarasota County to make their voices heard in a re-vote. It’s the only fair solution to what was arguably the biggest foul-up among many in this year’s midterm elections—a congressional race where some 18,000 votes were not recorded.

The Sarasota snafu also sends up a bright signal flare that Congress and individual state legislatures cannot ignore. They must investigate all the election problems voters experienced this year and enact genuine election reform in time for the 2008 elections. With the high turnout and close contests of a presidential year looming, we’ve got a little over a year to get it right.

The evidence in Sarasota County strongly suggests that several factors led to the massive undervote in the congressional race, where no vote was recorded for about one of every six Sarasota voters. Numerous voters’ accounts provide compelling evidence that voting machine error—faulty machine programming and/or malfunctioning touch screens—was a major problem. Machine error is also suggested by voting patterns, as other potential problems alone do not explain the fact that undervotes were twice as common among strongly Democratic voters as they were among strongly Republican ones. Flawed ballot design (and the distribution of sample ballots indicating a different design) was also apparently a problem. Crucially, in what amounts to official misconduct, election supervisor Kathy Dent did not adequately address ballot design problems when she became aware of them during early voting.

In fact, dozens of voters testified at a hearing cosponsored by People For the American Way Foundation that when they tried to vote in the race between Christine Jennings and Vern Buchanan their votes were not recorded, or somehow disappeared when the summary screen appeared. Other Sarasota voters have provided similar eyewitness testimony to the courts and the news media.

Despite this clear evidence that thousands of voters were disenfranchised, the state certified the election for Buchanan by a razor-thin margin of less than 400 votes. A meaningless “audit” of just ten machines, has thus far shed no light on how the undervote occurred. That’s not surprising considering that the lead auditor prejudged the audit, claiming “they’re not going to find anything,” before an examination of the voting machine software even began, and another auditor has clear partisan leanings and wore a “Bush won” button during the 2000 Florida recount. Editorial opinion in Florida and across the country has been scathing.

Jennings is contesting the results in court. Separately, People For the American Way Foundation, Voter Action, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the ACLU Foundation of Florida filed an independent, nonpartisan suit on behalf of voters asking for a revote. Additionally, Congress is preparing for a potential contest by Jennings to Buchanan’s certification as the official Representative of CD-13, which could result in numerous outcomes, one of them being a delay in seating a representative from Florida’s 13th District. This may be the last option available to protect the voting rights of the 18,000 Floridians that have thus far been denied.

It’s only by chance that the mess in Sarasota was not repeated in other races around the country. Problems with iVotronic voting machines, the type used in Sarasota, were widespread:

  • Large undervotes also appeared in Florida in the races for Attorney General and Secretary of State in Broward, Miami-Dade, Sumter, Charlotte, and Lee counties. All of these counties use iVotronic machines.
  • Election officials in Williamson County, Texas, say that iVotronic machines malfunctioned, counting each vote cast electronically three times.
  • After voting concluded in a mayoral race in a small town in Arkansas, the iVotronic count had one mayoral candidate with zero votes, even though he voted for himself and his wife did too.
  • Reports of iVotronic “vote flipping” were widespread throughout Pennsylvania, with eyewitness accounts of machines changing votes in the city of Hazleton and in Cambria, Westmoreland and Allegheny counties, among others.
  • Many more iVotronic problems have been reported—a list can be found here.

Those are only a few of the problems encountered with just one brand of voting machine. As a co-founder of the Election Protection coalition, People For the American Way Foundation is reviewing thousands of complaints from voters nationwide about voting problems—everything from machine failures to deceptive flyers, poorly trained poll workers, and the inequitable distribution of voting machines and election resources.

The mess in Sarasota County is a timely reminder that the nation needs comprehensive election reform. It’s no small irony that the race in Florida’s 13th district is to replace Katherine Harris, the former Florida Secretary of State who stood at the epicenter of the voting debacle in the Bush-Gore race in 2000. That sorry episode laid bare the flaws in our voting system that now, six years later, have been inadequately addressed.

The new Congress should start with hearings into what happened in Sarasota County, and in other places around the nation where the voting process failed, where voters were misled or intimidated, or where serious questions have been raised about the integrity of the voting process. Several excellent pieces of legislation, including Senator Hillary Clinton’s Count Every Vote Act and Senator Barack Obama’s Deceptive Practices and Intimidation Act, have already been introduced, and People For the American Way is working closely with congressional leaders on additional election reform legislation. People For the American Way is also working with lawmakers in more than a dozen state legislatures to push for election reform, including the removal of barriers to the ballot box.

In 2008, the nation will face a Presidential election with no incumbent, close House and Senate races, and election battles for key offices in state and local governments. The stakes, always high, will be intensified in a nation still sharply divided along political lines. We’ve got a little over a year to forge an election system that will make sure voters in Florida and all 50 states have full faith and confidence that their votes will count.

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