Jennings to Ask Congress to Intervene in Vote

Christine Jennings
TALLAHASSEE -

Democratic congressional aspirant Christine Jennings planned to ask Congress on Wednesday for an investigation and possibly a revote in the election state officials say she lost to Republican Vern Buchanan.

Jennings said she will ask Congress to consider ordering a revote in Florida's 13th Congressional District race if her Florida legal challenge fails. The deadline to file the contest with the clerk of the U.S. House is 6 p.m. EST.

'It's not about me. It's about a revote,' Jennings said by telephone from Washington. 'I am not trying in any way to tell Congress what they should do. I am simply doing this for the integrity of our voting system.'

In her Florida lawsuit, she is seeking the computer programming code for the touch-screen voting machines that are a major issue in the race. While Buchanan was declared the winner by 369 votes, 18,000 Sarasota County electronic ballots had no choice in the race. Jennings contends the machines lost the votes and that cost her the election.

The state found no evidence of malfunctions. The devices' maker called Jennings' claims speculation and noted that the same machines in neighboring Charlotte County also recorded a high rate of undervotes in the attorney general's race. Buchanan has repeatedly called for her to concede.

Congress is unlikely to immediately intervene in the contest, said Salley Collins, a spokeswoman for the House Administration Committee. The precedent is to swear in the state-certified winner and then investigate the contest.

Collins said the committee can begin investigating at any point after the appeal, but they usually wait to see what the state courts decide. Buchanan has 30 days to respond to the challenge.

'Our primary concern is representing our constituency,' Buchanan's press secretary Sally Tibbetts said Wednesday. 'Nevertheless, we fully intend to respond.'

According to a committee report, most of the 105 contested elections since 1933 were decided in favor of the state-certified winner. The last challenge in 1997 took 15 months to resolve.

'Some of these are resolved in a matter of weeks, but some drag on for months,' Collins said. 'There is no real rule book as to when and if they conduct an investigation.'

In the Tallahassee court, Jennings and a group of voters are seeking access to the computer programming code from the iVotronic touch-screen machines used in Sarasota County to try to determine whether a bug or even malicious programming could have caused lost votes.

The company that makes the machines, Electronic Systems & Software Inc., is fighting the effort, saying its programming is a trade secret.

The congressional race was to decide the replacement for U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris, a Longboat Key Republican who left the seat to make an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate.

Lawyers for Jennings argue the issue goes beyond the immediate congressional race. As more jurisdictions begin using touch-screen machines, problems have left some voters skeptical over how well they work. Critics of the machines say it's difficult to show whether they work when the devices' makers are secretive about the programming.

Lawyers for ES&S questioned their only witness Wednesday, who put forth another theory for what may have gone wrong, showing how poor ballot design could have caused lots of voters to skip the race.

Dartmouth government and politics professor Michael Herron showed Judge William Gary several ballots that were similar to Sarasota's in one respect: they had at least one page with a single race, followed by a page with more than one race.

In areas where such ballots were used, the percentage of undervotes in races that shared a page tended to be higher, Herron testified. That showed ballot design could be to blame for voters skipping the race, he said.

Herron also noted that his research on the election showed that the more voters aged 76 and up who were in a particular precinct, the higher the undervote was in the Jennings-Buchanan race, further implying that confusion may have been a factor.

A test conducted by state officials this week on some machines in Sarasota County found that the machines registered votes for candidates that testers tried to vote for just fine, and showed no anomalies. The state Division of Elections' audit isn't complete, and another phase will begin Thursday.

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