She was robbed

Why the fate of 18,000 undervotes is so important to Christine Jennings

Closure is a comforting thing. It's a shame that, six months later, we don't have any when it comes to the Christine Jennings-Vern Buchanan 2006 congressional election.

The popular perception of the lingering debate over the outcome of the Sarasota-based 13th Congressional District goes something like this: Buchanan won by fewer than 400 votes on Election Day. The election was complicated by the fact that on almost 18,000 ballots, voters chose neither the Republican winner nor the Democrat, Jennings. The state investigated and found nothing wrong with the machines. Buchanan was seated in Congress. But Jennings won't let go, suing in state court to get a new election and imploring Congress to reverse the results.

But here's the problem: That take is not quite right. Yes, Jennings has sued, and Congress is involved. The state did investigate and found nothing (more on that flawed probe later). But there is much more at stake here than just perpetuating the stereotype of a sore loser who can't accept reality. Jennings is anything but. The scientific records pretty clearly show that a lot went wrong in the District 13. And that has ramifications for all our elections.

"All of Christine's efforts have been about much more than who won or lost one election," said her campaign communications director, David Kochman. "It's about the integrity of the voting system. Next time around, it could be the presidential election we are talking about."

Or the presidential primaries that are coming up in January, which will likely rely on those same flawed electronic voting machines that gave us Jennings-Buchanan. The state's recently-passed law requiring a paper trail and doing away with electronic voting machines probably won't be implemented by then.

And that, according to my 1970s-era Florida public education in civics, would be bad for democracy.

For Jennings, the worm may have finally turned in her effort to get somebody, anybody to dig down deep into this mess. Earlier this month, a task force of the House Committee on Administration voted 2-1 along party lines to ask the Government Accountability Office to undertake a full investigation of the House 13 election. That same group dismissed three other Florida challenges, including Democrat John Russell's in a district north of Tampa Bay.

"We're thrilled that it looks like the Government Accountability Office is going to do a full investigation. That has been one of our top goals," Kochman said. "When that happens, we will finally get to the bottom of what happened in Sarasota."

From scientific studies about the election, however, we can already get a pretty good idea:

• There was a 50 percent increase in undervotes on machines that were set up and programmed after Oct. 11, according to Dr. Charles Stewart III, a political scientist from MIT. The undervote rate also went up as the number of machines prepared on any given day increased. He doesn't know exactly why, though.

• The ballot format, in which the congressional race shared an electronic page with the Florida governor's race, is flawed. A statistical analysis co-authored by ES&S's own expert, Dr. Michael Herron of Dartmouth, found higher undervote rates when that layout was used. Scientists don't know why that is; they just know it is.

• The state of Florida's investigation into the reliability of the voting machines used in Sarasota County was flawed in numerous ways, according to a study by computer scientists from Stanford University and Rice University. The scope of the probe was too limited, and voting machines were tested in an upright position instead of horizontally, as they were used in the election. For starters.

Dartmouth, MIT and Stanford. Not exactly academic slouches.

One last thing: Dr. Herron's study went further and looked at how those 18,000 votes might have gone if they had been registered. Its conclusion:

"We estimate that, had Sarasota used a ballot format akin to those in neighboring counties, Jennings would have beaten Buchanan. Indeed, our ballot-level analysis leaves virtually no doubt that the excess undervote would have broken in Jennings favor in a manner that would have easily reversed the certified election outcome."

For a daily dose of political pearls, visit my blog, thepoliticalwhore.com.

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