House Study of Florida Race May Take Months

Posted June 8, 2007 at 6:34pm

The Government Accountability Office last week told a special House elections task force that it may take months to determine what allegedly caused thousands of votes to disappear in a Florida House election in November, likely dimming the prospects that the sun will set in the still-disputed contest before late 2007 or beyond.

GAO officials on Thursday met in private with the special House Administration elections panel, multiple sources confirmed, to discuss the status of the agency’s investigation into the cause of 18,000 possible “undervotes” in the House contest between now-Rep. Vern Buchanan (R) and bank executive Christine Jennings (D).

In January, the House seated Buchanan as ex-Rep. Katherine Harris’ (R) replacement, but Democratic leaders held open the possibility that Jennings eventually could be seated.

Meanwhile, the three-member elections task force is expected to meet publicly as early as this week to decide how the investigation will proceed. Although details of the proposed meeting were not available as of press time Friday, GAO spokeswoman Nancy Kingsbury said it will “take a couple of months” for the auditing agency to formulate its game plan before reporting its findings back to the task force.

“We’re just getting started,” Kingsbury said. “We have developed a plan for the preliminary phase, which is just to look at what others have done — what the state did, what the testing people have done, et cetera.”

The lone Republican on the elections task force, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), told Roll Call on Friday that the GAO assured the group that by September the auditor would report one of two things to the task force. The first possibility: a conclusion that the GAO has found no indication that the electronic voting machines malfunctioned.

“Or,” McCarthy said, “‘[the GAO might say that it] thought this and this were wrong, so [the task force has] to go further.’”

McCarthy said the process from the start has been mired in logistical and budgetary challenges, including task force Chairman Charlie Gonzalez (D-Texas) and others setting expectations too high by predicting that the GAO could complete its portion of the investigation in less than two months.

“When we had the first discussion, [Democrats] kept saying 45 days,” McCarthy said. “There’s no way you can do this in 45 days.’”

McCarthy also said the GAO has been hesitant to give much more than an educated guess regarding how much the investigation will cost, failing to give even a rough estimate of how many agency man-hours it will take to complete the monumental task.

“I kept hearing $1 million prior to the meeting … [but] they were just throwing a number out,” McCarthy said. “What they really have to do is analyze what the state already has done.”

Florida auditors already have certified that the Jennings-Buchanan contest was decided by just 369 votes. Last month, Jennings stopped pursuing her claims in the Florida court system that the election was botched. For months, the various parties involved wrangled, in part, over whether the manufacturer of the suspicious voting machines should be required to offer up its trade secrets — a dispute that may live another day in the GAO’s investigation.

Should the voting machine manufacturer balk again, Kingsbury said the agency does not have subpoena power to directly force the company to cough up evidence, even if it could prove to be crucial. Although the agency could call on the House panel to force the manufacturer and perhaps other witnesses to comply, that process could add days or weeks to a dispute already in its eighth month.

“We don’t know, we haven’t asked yet, but there’s a good question whether [the manufacturer is] going to give it to us,” Kingsbury said. “This is a very unusual request for us. … We anticipate some obstacles … this is pretty arcane software management.”

In a perfect world, Kingsbury said the GAO could complete its investigation in 45 days. But with technical glitches or legal snags all but certain, “it will probably take less than six [months].”

A Democratic source said the task force will vote at its next open meeting on an official time frame for the overall investigation, which most observers agree has far exceeded original expectations. But with candidates already declaring for 2008 House races, the source said, a renewed focus on the Jennings-Buchanan race has emerged.

“It’s something that people want to get done in a timely fashion because the next thing you know people are going to have to start filing again for the next election,” the source said.

Gonzalez appeared to confirm the source’s sentiment in an e-mail message Friday.

“While the task force understands the sensitive nature of this investigation and the need for ample time to complete a thorough analysis, we remain committed to concluding this inquiry in a timely fashion,” Gonzalez said. “We will work with the GAO to determine an appropriate timeline that provides enough time for a comprehensive analysis that also respects the need to arrive at a solution in a timely fashion.”