It could be well into the 110th Congress before a Member from Florida’s 13th district is seated by the House — and the next several weeks could prove to be explosive as the fight plays out in the courts and on Capitol Hill.
The Democratic candidate in the highly contentious race, bank executive Christine Jennings, is in Washington, D.C., this week, meeting with party leaders and drumming up financial support as she continues to dispute the results that appeared to hand auto dealer Vern Buchanan (R) a 369-vote victory.
Although Jennings already has filed suit in a Florida circuit court seeking a revote, she said in an interview Tuesday that she also intends to contest the result with the House Administration Committee — which has oversight over federal elections — by the Dec. 20 deadline. Jennings and her attorneys already have met with Democratic staff members from the committee to discuss the filing process.
“I would not want to pass up on that opportunity,” Jennings said, adding that she still held out hope that the Florida courts might order a revote for the entire 13th district or just in Sarasota County, where Jennings insists malfunctions with the electronic voting machines produced 18,000 undervotes — and changed the outcome of the election.
Filing an official protest with the House Administration Committee will automatically make the Jennings/Buchanan case one of the first indicators of just how partisan the 110th Congress will be, and observers won’t even have to wait until the new year to begin to see the fissures.
Here’s why: The House of Representatives as a whole is responsible for seating its own membership. Buchanan supporters argue that since he holds a certificate from the Florida Elections Canvassing Commission showing that he won the race, he should be installed as the Representative of Florida’s 13th district on Jan. 4, when the 110th Congress convenes.
But in her lawsuit, Jennings has asked the court to order that state officials decertify Buchanan’s victory, and Republicans are concerned that the incoming Democratic House leadership might not seat anyone until the House Administration Committee finishes its review and issues a recommendation on the matter.
It is not unprecedented for neither candidate to be seated by the House until a contested election is resolved. Perhaps the most notable example in recent years is the infamous 1984 race between the late Democratic Rep. Frank McCloskey and Republican Richard McIntyre in Indiana’s 8th district — where it took until the following May to swear in a Member for that seat. McCloskey eventually was seated by a Democratic House.
It’s unclear yet whether Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is planning to fill the seat or leave it vacant until Jennings’ appeals have run their course.
One House leadership aide said Tuesday that “we’re continuing to watch this situation very closely, but of course we have some time ahead of us before we need to really make decisions on this. Obviously the court case that is developing may not be resolved before” Jan. 4.
The Florida dispute could get widespread attention because it involves electronic voting machines, which have come under heavy fire from many good government groups and clean elections advocates.