Voting Irregularities Probed in Florida Congressional Race

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In Florida, election officials in Sarasota County have begun a review of touch-screen voting machines used in the recent election. They are testing the machines in order to determine why more than 18,000 ballots in the county registered no votes in the highly contested congressional race between Republican Vern Buchanan and Democrat Christine Jennings. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Florida, election officials in Sarasota County have begun a review of touch-screen voting machines used in the recent election. They’re testing the machines in order to determine why more than 18,000 ballots in the county registered no votes in the highly contested congressional race between Republican Vern Buchanan and Democrat Christine Jennings. This undercount was almost 15 percent of ballots cast, far higher than in neighboring areas. Buchanan, with 369 votes more than Jennings, was certified the winner last week.

But the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections requested a state audit in response to voter complaints. A few days after the election, more than a hundred county residents told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that their votes were either not recorded or that they never saw the race listed on the ballot. The paper also wrote, if the missing votes had broken for Jennings by the same percentage as the counted votes in the county, the Democrat would have won the race by about 600 votes. Christine Jennings is contesting the results, and the case is now in court. This seat also happens to be the old seat of Katherine Harris who, when she was Florida secretary of state, was a central figure in the 2000 presidential recount battle.

Elana Schor joins us right now from Washington, D.C. She’s a staff reporter for the newspaper The Hill. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

ELANA SCHOR: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t you lay out for us everything that’s going on there in Florida?

ELANA SCHOR: Well, this morning we’re hearing out of Sarasota that they are already finding discrepancies in the first day of testing of these voting machines. The tests take ten voting machines, only five of which were actually used on Election Day by voters in this race. And you have elections workers, many of them fairly partisan, inputting scripts that, say, suggest a win for Buchanan or a win for Jennings. And when there were fairly serious discrepancies coming back yesterday evening, the county board said that it was likely human error, in other words, effectively saying our own people messed up.

Now, the supervisor who ordered this audit, Kathy Dent, is not present for it at all. She said that she has confidence in her people to manage it while she’s not there. Both candidates are stopping in to check the integrity. But now, they have until Friday, when a second round of auditing is to begin, to figure out what caused these issues.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the fact that Katherine Harris, her name is almost synonymous in the rest of the country with the issue of voting scandals and voting rolls and purges of voter rolls?

ELANA SCHOR: Well, it’s ironic, to say the least. There was some talk. The People for the American Way Foundation, which has sent a couple of its own lawyers down there to bolster Jennings’s team, has pointed out that some of the same workers looking at these machines now were part of the Harris team that was active in the 2000 recount. So it’s very much déjà-vu, in a way.

AMY GOODMAN: What are people in the community saying, in the county? I mean, there must be a great deal of anger that this doesn’t stop from 2000 right on up until today.

ELANA SCHOR: I think very much so. You see the Herald-Tribune, but other papers in the district, as well, criticizing the integrity of the audit. Jennings wants a new election entirely. She feels that’s the only way to truly replicate the circumstances. Her lawyers argue it’s a lot different to have a worker sitting there inputting a script with a paper compared with a voter who is just acting on his own volition.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, explain how this process works now? We’re in the midst—this three days of the counting, or weeks of recounting.

ELANA SCHOR: Well, this—yes, it does come after a sampled recount that ended a few days back. And now the audit is starting. Yesterday they took scripts, and you had individuals punching in projected outcomes into 10 machines. The next two days consist of paper recounting, essentially they’re trying to compare, is there a similar error rate for paper ballots compared with the touch-screen ballots. And then on Friday, they’ll do a second round of touch-screen voting.

AMY GOODMAN: And how does this fit in to the bigger picture in this country? How unusual is this for congressional races that are being counted right now all over the country?

ELANA SCHOR: Well, there were several fairly close races, one in Connecticut with Rob Simmons’s seat. Mary Jo Kilroy, who challenged Deborah Pryce, is still involved in a recount, but it’s required by state law, even though she’s already planning to concede to Pryce. But this is really the bellwether election because it’s one where there’s a conscious case for the Democratic challenger to say, I could have won this race had these undervotes really been counted statistically.

AMY GOODMAN: So, right now, the latest on Katherine Harris’s seat is that Christine Jennings has filed suit based on—the suit detailing eyewitness complaints in Sarasota County. And we’ll see what takes place after this.

ELANA SCHOR: Certainly. However, there is a possible precedent for Jennings to get seated, even before the court case is decided. Back in the early ’90s there was a similar situation, and a Republican was seated by Republican congressional leadership while the election was still contested. So, we may see Nancy Pelosi making her voice heard, even though she already has control of the chamber.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Florida governor, the president’s brother, Jeb Bush, opposing legislation in Florida mandating the paper records. Yet, fellow Republican, Charlie Crist, who succeeds Bush in January, expressing just vague support.

ELANA SCHOR: Well, they’re going to be pressured by Congress. You have Dianne Feinstein, who’s taking over the Senate Rules Committee promising weeks of hearings on the integrity of touch-screen voting. And it was her state that Bev Harris, the famed founder of Black Box [Voting] took on state elections officials. So, you know, Florida state officials can say what they’d like to say. There may be federal law coming when Democrats take over.

AMY GOODMAN: Elana Schor, I want to thank you very much for being with us, staff reporter at The Hill.

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