Friday, November 10, 2006

A Recount in Florida? Where have I heard that before?!? I’m not alone in being greatly concerned by the reported results in the race for Katherine Harris’ congressional seat (oh, the irony) – the 13th district in Florida. A recount is in the offing, but there is a much larger issue presented. According to press reports, there was a huge undervote or undercount in Sarasota County, which used the ATM-like touch screen electronic vote machines (I’m assuming Diebold – but not alleging deliberate shenanigans here). In that county, 13% of the votes cast registered no vote in the hotly contested Congressional race. That translates into over 18,000 ballots, out of over 140,000, that contain no vote in the FL-13 race.

None of the other counties saw anything like that level of undervoting. For example, DeSoto County estimated an undervote of 1% for the 13th C.D. Common Cause notes that Manatee County reported a 2% undervote. Manatee County used fill-in-the-blank optical scan machines. In fact, Sarasota uses an optical scan for the absentee ballots. Apparently, the absentee ballot voters were more interested in the race, as the County actually had a 14% undervote rate for the touch-screen machines. I fear that the recount will not yield the result we’d like (Christine Jennings, the Democrat, trails by 368 votes), nor will it be any more accurate. I would like to suggest a strategy for challenging the count.

The Miami Herald has reported on this matter, including interviews with one voter, who said that he and his wife had trouble with early voting, when they realized that their votes in the congressional race weren’t recorded. Apparently, the voter, Dr. Richard Malkin, was conscientiously reviewing his summary page, and noted the problem. He said his wife had the same problem, and so did another voter next to them. Malkin caught the problem before the ballot was cast, and he went back and corrected it. Still the undervote in the early voting was even higher than Election Day -- 18%. How many others thought they had indicated a vote preference in that race, but didn’t notice that no vote was recorded?

The County’s election supervisor, one Kathy Dent, denies there was some equipment failure. Instead, she suggests that the undervote might reflect disenchantment with a dirty campaign. Academics pooh-pooh that suggestion, because the size of the undervote almost certainly does point to an equipment issue.

One possible explanation offered for the undervotes was a confusing ballot layout -- Can anyone say "Butterfly-Ballot?" According to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, some voters claimed to have trouble finding the race on their electronic ballot -- this seems absolutely incredible to me. In Maryland, the ballot is arranged one screen after another. It would be difficult to design that in such a way that a race was hard to find, but apparently they managed this feat in Florida.

Common Cause is urging that there be a re-vote. I wonder who, or what body, if any, would have the authority to order such a re-vote? I also don’t know the mechanism by which votes are recorded. Is there simply a vote total, or is it possible to determine by looking at the machine, which ballots contain an undervote? If it is possible to learn that, I would suggest that the Democratic legal team interview some of these voters to find out whether they did intend an undervote. Affidavits could be compelling evidence of a problem with the machines. Even if that’s not possible, I’d like to suggest that a random survey be conducted to find out if there were significant numbers of deliberate undervotes. The results of such a survey could be almost as compelling as actual voters’ sworn statements contradicting machine records of those voters’ votes.

There were large undercounts throughout Sarasota County, no doubt affecting the vote totals of both candidates. In fact, it appears that Jennings' campaign may have been more affected, since the undervote percentages are reportedly lower in precincts that were carried by the Republican candidate for Governor, Charlie Crist. However, I see the reason for challenging the vote as being something larger than the question of which candidate may have benefited by equipment failures. That was the strategic mistake Gore made in 2000, challenging the vote totals only in districts he thought would be most likely to favor him.

It seems clear that the recorded vote totals do not reflect the will of the electorate -- that some voters were disenfranchised. More votes were recorded in the race for the hospital board in Sarasota than for the congressional race. It defies credibility to believe that more voters tried to cast votes for the board -- more than for their representative in Congress. As such, the overall result cannot be trusted. A belief in democracy, and the primacy of the ballot, impels a reconsideration of this race. As A Democrat, I can hope that the recount will somehow yield the 370 votes Jennings needs. But, I suggest that the Democratic Party pursue a strategy to challenge the validity of the vote in Sarasota County.

So, while I write, in part, to bring more attention to this race, my primary purpose is to suggest a strategy for challenging the result. On the DailyKos, one Florida Dem has already put out a call here on the DKos, to raise money for the recount effort. I suggest that concerned individuals urge the Florida Democratic Party to push for a new election. It wouldn't hurt to urge the same of the Republican Party, but they won't agree, since the Republican leads the current count. In the age of the computerized voting machine, this could be an enormously important precedent. How we confront or ignore the issue may influence how elections are conducted and checked for years to come.

You can find the Miami Herald story here:
The Sarasota Herald Tribune story is here:

No comments: