GAO Will Examine Florida Ballot Fight

Posted May 2, 2007 at 6:11pm

A House task force agreed Wednesday to enlist an in-house auditor to explore whether faulty voting equipment left thousands of votes missing last year in Florida’s still-disputed 13th district election.

The House Administration elections task force, chaired by Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (D-Texas), unanimously voted at its first public meeting Tuesday to turn the matter, for now, over to the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan Congressional investigatory agency.

The GAO will attempt to determine the cause of 18,000 possible “undervotes” in November in the House contest between bank executive Christine Jennings (D) and now-Rep. Vern Buchanan (R) in the race to replace Rep. Katherine Harris (R), who stepped aside to pursue a Senate bid.

Although Florida auditors certified that the Jennings-Buchanan contest was decided by just 369 votes, Jennings continues to insist that malfunctioning voting equipment led to the missing votes, robbing her of victory.

The contested election, initially expected to move relatively quickly through the Florida court system, has ground to a halt. With roughly one-quarter of the 110th Congress already done, Democrats at Tuesday’s meeting said that time is of the essence.

“I think we need to put this to rest,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.).

The GAO report is expected to take about 45 days to complete, officials said. While House Democratic leaders agreed to seat Buchanan at the beginning of the year, they have not ruled out the possibility of removing him from Congress and seating Jennings if subsequent evidence suggests that she actually won the election.

Lofgren, Gonzalez and freshman Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), a former aide to retired Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), are the three Members on the panel’s elections task force.

Despite his vote to send the matter to the GAO, McCarthy and other Republicans have been critical of perceived Democratic meddling ahead of a final decision by Florida courts. Many GOP critics say little evidence in the ongoing case conclusively suggests that the voting machines malfunctioned.

“Do we go through a [Congressional] investigation, which has its own ramifications … [with] no evidence before us that says there is a problem with [ongoing court] investigations?” McCarthy asked at Wednesday’s hearing. “I would argue that there [already] has been an investigation … [Florida authorities] have looked at the machines.”

“Are we doing a disservice to Congressman Buchanan?” McCarthy continued. “I think its time to move on.”

But for Jennings, who continues to raise money to finance her ongoing court battle, Wednesday’s decision by the task force means that her 2006 House bid lives another day.

“I am thrilled that the investigation will move forward. This is about more than who won or lost an individual election — it’s about protecting the right to vote,” Jennings said in a statement. “The 18,000 people in Sarasota who lost that right, and the millions of Americans nationwide who use electronic voting machines, deserve answers.”