Florida Recount, 2006-Style

Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent talks to the media about the results of the 13th Congressional Disctrict race Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2006 outside her office in Sarasota, Fla. Democratic banker Christine Jennings is refusing to concede to Republican auto dealer Vern Buchanan in their race for U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris' district, with a recount appearing likely in the tight race. (AP Photo/Steve Nesius) AP

This story was written by CBS News chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian and producers Phil Hirschkorn and Michael Rey.
On Monday Florida will begin its first recount for a federal election since the botched 2000 presidential contest, but this time there will be no hanging chads. It is the reliability of touch screen electronic voting machines that will be in the spotlight.

The disputed race in Florida's 13th Congressional District, south of Tampa, is one place where the kind of machines used by 40% of American voters this week may have malfunctioned significantly enough to alter the outcome of a seat in Congress.

The CBS News Investigative Unit has obtained an E-mail by a key election official indicating she may have known well before Election Day the machines weren't working properly.

Republican Vern Buchanan beat Democrat Christine Jennings by 373 votes with 237,842 counted, according to unofficial results from the Florida Division of Elections.

That tiny margin – less than one-half of one percent – triggered an automatic recount under Florida state law.

But the Jennings campaign believes thousands of votes in the district's most populous county went unrecorded. If they had been counted, the campaign says, Jennings would be on her way to Washington.

The red flag rose in Sarasota County, the heart of the district, where, if the results are to be believed, nearly one in every six (16%) Election Day voters either skipped or missed the hotly contested House race and were not counted in the final tally.

(Sarasota Herald-Tribune)
The Jennings/Buchanan race was hard to miss on the touch screen iVotronic machines supplied by ES&S. It was the second contest listed on the ballot, right between high profile races for Senator and Governor.

During two weeks of early voting prior to Nov. 7, election officials noticed that an unusually high number of voters using the machines – one in five – seemed to miss the House race.

"Please remind every voter to make sure they do not overlook the 13th congressional race at the top of the second page of voting," wrote Kathy Dent, Sarasota's Supervisor of Elections, to poll workers on Friday, Nov. 3.

"Some voters are overlooking the Buchanan/Jennings race until they get to the review screen," Dent continued in the E-mail obtained by CBS News. "This is critical."

One poll worker who requested anonymity told us how she received the message and reminded people about the House race on Election Day. Her theory: "I am thinking people touched the square and didn't notice the X didn't come out."

Read Kathy Dent's pre-election e-mail.
The results in her precinct showed a huge "undervote" in the House race. "We thought, 'Oh man, we're in trouble," the poll worker says.

As our team investigated voting machine glitches around the country, including Sarasota County on Election Day, Supervisor Dent wrote us: "Voters are simply overlooking the race. There is not a calibration problem."

Dent has since not returned phone calls or replied to questions we posed by E-mail. (In a press conference Wednesday, Dent stood by her view it was the intent of nearly 1 in 6 voters to skip the House race).

Jennings is now crying foul. The Democrat won 53% of the vote in Sarasota County, and her campaign says, had even half the 17,811 "missing" machine votes been recorded, the she would have overcome her margin of defeat.

Compare the Election Day numbers to Sarasota's paper absentee ballots: only two-and-half percent of absentee ballots ignored the House race.

Would six times as many people from the same place do so on Election Day?

They didn't anywhere else in the district, and less than two percent of Sarasota's voters skipped the senatorial and gubernatorial contests.

"I'm suspicious. Something's funny. I wish knew what," says Doug Jones, a University of Iowa computer scientist and expert on voting machine technology.

"Let's assume they were reminding people. That makes it even harder to believe voters weren't expressing an opinion in the race," Jones says.

Voters in one other county in the district, Charlotte County, also used iVotronic touch screen machines made by ES&S, the nation's second largest voting equipment supplier. But of 29,000 voters there, just 226, or under one percent, skipped various House races.

In three other counties in the district – Manatee, Hardee and DeSoto – voters cast paper ballots counted by optical scanners, made by Diebold, the nation's top supplier of election equipment.

In Manatee County, the district's second most populous, where more than 94,000 people voted, there were only 2,300 blanks for the House race, around two percent.

"The vote was fair and accurate," says Buchanan communications director Sally Tibbets. "It does appear that many people chose for whatever reason not to vote in this race. That doesn't mean there is problem with these voting machines."

Dozens of Satasota County voters called "election protection" hotlines. Some did catch their "undervote" when they had the chance.

"I punched in all my candidates including the congressional candidates, and when it came to the review page, I looked up and I noticed that my vote for Christine Jennings hadn't registered," postal worker Joe Betits said.

He tried again, and the vote showed up on the summary page – which is what ES&S says anyone should expect with its machines.

"According to the Supervisor of Elections, undervotes were a result of an intentional choice not to make a selection in the congressional race or unintentional omission of a selection," says ES&S spokesman Ken Fields. "The touch screen system used in Sarasota County provides unlimited opportunity for a voter to make and change selections before a ballot is cast."

ES&S has yet to examine the machines at issue but is sending technicians to assist the recount.

But what will happen in Sarasota and Charlotte counties, is less of a recount than a re-tally of the same results, because Florida is among the 15 states that do not allow touch screen machines to produce a paper trail – a plastic-covered scroll visible to voters summarizing their choices before they hit the "vote" button. (The paper is stored inside the machine; voters don't get an ATM-style receipt).

Virginia, where 78% of voters used touch-screen machines, according to Election Data Services, also does not require a paper trial – a possible factor in Republican Sen. George Allen's decision not to seek a recount in his failed race against Democrat Jim Webb.

"It won't uncover what happened," Jones says of the pending Florida recount. "It really does matter to all of us around the country who use touch screen machines why such a preposterously large percentage of the population didn't have their votes counted."

In a bit of irony, a majority of Sarasota county voters Tuesday passed a referendum requiring the county to use a paper-based ballot system in the future.

What's more, the House seat is being vacated by Katherine Harris, the former Florida Secretary of State who notoriously presided over the 2000 election recount. Harris was trounced in her run for Senate this week.
By Armen Keteyian, Phil Hirschkorn and Michael Rey
  • James Klatell

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