Election Problems in Florida — Again

By David Bruggeman
November 17, 2006

Update – November 22 The major event since the last update is the filing of a second lawsuit on Tuesday contesting the election – this one by voters and poll workers, supported by several voting rights groups. I do want to note a couple of useful items put out by local press:

Interactive map of the undervotes by precinct – courtesy of the Herald Tribune. You can observe the percentage of undervotes (along with the vote breakdown for each candidate) per district. While the undervote percentage is generally higher in Sarasota County than the rest of the Congressional District, precincts that went for Jennings often have an even higher percentage of undervotes.

The Herald Tribune has a whole section on the recount, where you can see all of their coverage along with documents from the suit filed by Jennings.

The Orlando Sentinel has assessed the undervotes in Sarasota County, looking at how the undervoted ballots voted for other races. According to the Sentinel, these ballots trend very Democratic – even in races where the county favored the Republican candidate.

Update – November 20 As expected (per the Associated Press), the trailing candidate, Democrat Christine Jennings has officially contested the results of the election. The challenge, filed immediately after the State of Florida certified the results, calls for a new election based on statistical anomalies and eyewitness accounts of election difficulties. This challenge could have been filed whether or not the state ordered the audit of Sarasota County machines. In fact, the part of the audit that would test machines used in the election could not take place until the end of the challenge period (the 10 days following certification of results, or not before November 30). The AP reports that the first part of the audit – a test of the voting machines not used in the election – will take place on November 28.

Note: This story is still happening, so watch this space for updates.

The race for the open 13th Congressional District seat in Florida is in the midst of both a state mandated audit and a recount. The Republican candidate currently leads by 396 votes. This is not the only close Congressional race this year, and it isn’t even the closest (that was the race in the 2nd Congressional District of Connecticut, where the incumbent lost by less than 100 votes). But this is the 2006 race where electronic voting machines may have affected the outcome.

The wrinkle in this race comes from over 18,000 undervotes – votes not cast in this race – in Sarasota County. You can see the initial vote counts in Sarasota County for yourself. The undervotes are noted by comparing the total votes cast in other races to the number of votes cast in the Congressional race. While certainly some may have opted not to vote in that race, the percentage of undervotes cast in Sarasota County is much higher than the percentage of undervotes in other counties that make up the 13th District – counties that use different voting machines. Also, the percentage of Sarasota County voters who failed to cast votes in other races is much smaller than the undervote percentage for the 13th Congressional District race.

This does raise the question of whether the iVotronic touch-screen voting machines used in Sarasota County had problems. Some voters (mostly those who voted for the Democratic candidate) have reported trouble with the machines successfully recording their vote in that race. The state has ordered an audit of the Sarasota County machines, and their audit procedures suggest that absent a more rigorous examination by computer science and voting machine experts, any machine problems behind the undervotes may not be found. The more machines the state can have to test, the better (the current procedures would involve at most 8 machines, 2 more machines than were in the Maryland precinct where I served as an election judge). For example, undervotes may have been focused in a few machines, or in a few precincts. A larger sample of machines to examine makes it more likely to catch such a scenario. Similarly, the specific procedures outlined in the state’s audit plan do not include allowing for more extensive testing to try and replicate the kind of problems with voting in that race that some voters have reported. This letter dated November 16 from the Florida Secretary of State suggests that the court motions have been resolved, and the audit will proceed. While it asserts that the testing process will be transparent and open to the public, it’s not well advertised on the Secretary of State’s website. Sadly, the website of the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections is even less forthcoming about the audit and the recount. The Orlando Sentinel reports that the leading candidate has until Monday to find an expert to participate in the process. That campaign has claimed difficulty in finding an expert to assist, leading the opposition to claim they were stalling.

The ballot design for Sarasota County is also under scrutiny. The 13th District race was located on the second page of the ballot, before a long list of candidates for Governor. You can see a screenshot of that ballot page. According to the Miami Herald, Ted Selker of the MIT-Cal Tech Voting Project is conducting experiments to see how many of the undervotes could be attributed to the ballot design. Selker strongly advocates that each race should have its own page on the electronic ballot to reduce the possibility of undervotes.

The first recount – done by machine – was completed late Tuesday, with results shifting slightly due to errors with optical scanning equipment (apparently used for the absentee ballots). A second hand recount should finish later today, and will be followed by tallies of provisional, overseas and military ballots (which total more than the current margin of victory). However, without a voter verified paper trail, this second recount is nothing more than having the machines print out their results, which will be recounted by hand. No ballots are actually being recounted. Unlike punch cards, where hanging and dimpled chads could at least suggest voter intent, there is nothing in these machine summaries to suggest what the voter wanted to do in this race. Final results are supposed to be certified by Saturday (but formally announced on the 20th), so while the second recount will finish in time for the certification, the audit will not. Should the audit uncover problems, or suggest enough undervotes are present to switch the outcome (the trailing candidate did win in Sarasota County), the election may be contested in court if the suit is filed within 10 days of the certification.

Regardless of the outcome, Sarasota County will go to paper ballots in 2008. This was not a result of the current troubles, but of a charter amendment that requires “verified paper ballots.” Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent indicated that current touch-screen systems would be almost impossible to use with that restriction. The county will likely switch to optical scan machines to comply.

Look to the Florida papers for additional information on this process, and we will post updates as events unfold. Besides the Orlando Sentinel, check the Miami Herald and the Bradenton Herald.