Report: Fla. Voting Machines OK

Posted February 8, 2008 at 6:37pm

Bad ballot design, not faulty electronic voting machines, likely contributed to Florida GOP Rep. Vern Buchanan’s controversial victory on Election Day 2006, federal computer experts told a special House elections task force last week.

“There was a big undervote,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said Friday at a hearing of the House Administration Committee task force assigned to sort through the 2006 election in Florida’s 13th district. “We don’t know why.”

The Elections Task Force includes Reps. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Lofgren and Chairman Charlie Gonzalez (D-Texas).

Capping off a yearlong investigation, Friday’s hearing officially unveiled a final report by the Government Accountability Office regarding what may have happened to 18,000 “undervotes” in South Florida during the last election.

Although investigators weren’t expected to find a smoking gun, the GAO report largely ruled out what didn’t happen to the thousands of votes.

Testifying before the task force Friday, Nabajyoti Barkakati, a senior researcher at the GAO, reiterated his agency’s findings that malfunctioning electronic voting equipment “did not contribute to the large undervote in the Florida 13 contest.”

Barkakati’s report came nine months after the task force asked the agency to look into allegations brought by bank executive Christine Jennings (D), who lost to Buchanan in 2006 by 369 votes. Soon after the election, Jennings and other Democrats alleged that touch-screen electronic voting equipment made by Omaha-based Elections Systems & Software Inc. may have purged thousands of votes in heavily Democratic Sarasota County.

Jennings first asked Florida courts to look into the allegations, a process that stalled and finally sputtered out late last spring after her demand that ES&S hand over its equipment blueprints was denied. Company lawyers successfully argued that its source code was proprietary information, which, if published in public court documents, might compromise its ability to turn a profit.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Jennings paid more than $450,000 in related legal bills through mid-2007.

So with Jennings’ legal options exhausted by early May, House Democratic leadership agreed that the GAO should examine the machines. The GAO audit, approved by a May 2 task force vote, initially was expected to take 45 days.

Although the agency was asked only to test ES&S machines, the GAO’s final report to the task force did suggest that poor ballot design or disgruntled voters may have contributed to the undervote, a possibility that Barkakati, who ruled out the need for additional scrutiny of the machines, reiterated at Friday’s hearing.

“We are not suggesting any further testing,” Barkakati said. “We are aware of those kinds of things … but unfortunately we don’t have any conclusive statement about whether it was ballot design that might have caused it or the intentional undervoting that might have caused it.”

As of press time Friday, the final cost for the GAO investigation was unavailable. In late July, task force Chairman Gonzalez told Roll Call that it likely would cost $1 million or more.

Gonzalez, Lofgren and House Administration ranking member Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), who also attended Friday’s hearing, agreed that the ballot, which featured the Jennings-Buchanan race tucked above the Sunshine State’s six-way gubernatorial contest, was confusing.

“It goes back to ballot design. It doesn’t matter how sophisticated or reliable the voting machine may be, it could even have a paper trail,” Gonzalez said. “But at the end of this whole process, the ballot design many times can be confusing.”

Lofgren and Ehlers also encouraged the nation’s thousands of local elections officials to consider ballot design more carefully.

Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.), who also attended Friday’s hearing, said that disgruntled voters, too, may have played a role.

During the 2006 campaign, Jennings and Buchanan spent $11.4 million combined, the highest collective House total of the cycle.

“I might be the only one willing to confess that I have gone to ballot at times and not voted in certain elections to show my protest over the way the campaign was conducted,” Lungren said. “This was a hard-fought campaign not only in the general, but in the primary and voters sometime respond in that way.”

Jennings applauded the agency’s final report, suggesting that her initial appeal of Buchanan’s victory led to a statewide ban in Florida on paperless voting machines.

“We have achieved real results for the voters of this district and our state. Everyone in Florida can be confident that their vote will be counted as we now have a paper trail system,” Jennings said in a statement. “Our Governor and the Florida Legislature agreed that there was a problem that needed to be addressed and they did this by outlawing the touch screen voting machines.”

But with potentially millions of federal and state dollars spent and no smoking gun, Republicans already have begun attempting to make the GAO’s final report a political liability for Jennings, who is running again this year against Buchanan. Erin Van Sickle, a spokeswoman for the Florida Republican Party, called the GAO’s report “the end of the line for Christine Jennings.”

“Buchanan has been working to concentrate on the people of the district and passing good bills and showing up in Congress, fulfilling his job as a Congressman and representing the people of the district,” Van Sickle said. “Whereas Christine Jennings has spent all of her time and a good deal of special-interest money in this desperate crusade of hers.”