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Voting problems hit 4 counties
State will probe complaints in Sarasota race

Jim Stratton | Mark K. Matthews and Roger Roy, Sentinel Staff Writers
Posted November 10, 2006

Touch-screen-voting machines in at least four Florida counties recorded unusually high percentages of ballots with no votes in Tuesday's election a sign that new electronic-ballot machines may not be as foolproof as hoped.

Most of the post-election attention Thursday remained focused on Sarasota County, where more than 18,000 blank ballots representing 13 percent of the 142,284 ballots cast could have affected the outcome of one of the most hotly contested congressional races in the country.

In that race, Republican Vern Buchanan defeated Democrat Christine Jennings by only 373 votes triggering a likely recount.

But an Orlando Sentinel review of results among the 24 other counties that use the same electronic-voting machines as Sarasota found three other instances in Sumter, Lee and Charlotte counties where an even higher percentage of ballots failed to show any vote cast in the race for state attorney general.

In Sumter, ballots with no recorded votes known as "undervotes" accounted for 22 percent of all ballots in the attorney general's race. In Lee, 18 percent of ballots in that race were unvoted, and in Charlotte, 21 percent were blank.

By comparison, undervotes in those same counties in the U.S. Senate race were no higher than 1.5 percent.

The attorney-general undervotes in Sumter, Lee and Charlotte, representing about 45,000 blank ballots, presumably would not have affected the outcome of that race, in which Republican Bill McCollum defeated Democrat Walter "Skip" Campbell. McCollum won handily in all three counties.

In Sarasota, however, the story was much different in the race for House District 13.

Amid the uproar over those results, Florida's Department of State announced Thursday that it would audit Sarasota County's election system. A spokeswoman from the state office said the county requested the review, only the second in Florida in four years.

Jennings' campaign, meanwhile, kept up the pressure.

"This is disenfranchisement on a massive scale in Sarasota County," said Kendall Coffey, an attorney for Jennings.

He repeated calls for an independent, nongovernmental investigation and said dozens of voters had contacted the Jennings camp with concerns about their votes. The problem, he said, could be anything from maintenance issues with the touch-screen machines to problems with how the votes were tallied.

What went wrong?

The surprisingly large number of undervotes in the four counties all using a state-of-the-art electronic-ballot machine adopted after Florida's election debacle of 2000 had election officials and the political parties at odds over what, if anything, had gone wrong.

Democratic Party officials in Sarasota said many people failed to cast votes in the race because it was posted too high and inconspicuously on the top of the computer screen, and they failed to see it. But Republican Party officials said voters may have simply opted not to vote in those races.

In Sumter County, Elections Supervisor Karen Krauss said the placement of the attorney general's entry on the "very bottom" of that county's touch-screens may have led some voters to overlook it.

The voting machine used in the counties affected, known as iVotronic, displays the candidates in each race on a computer touch-screen. The voter s a candidate in each race, then touches an on-screen button to tab forward to the next page.

Krauss said she had heard that some voters missed the attorney general's race after voting in the governor's contest just above it. They moved ahead to the next page without realizing they had skipped a question.

Krauss said it "probably would have been a better scenario" to move the attorney general's item to the next page for more prominent display.

But Krauss and Charlotte County Elections Supervisor Mac Horton said they can't explain why voters didn't ultimately notice they had failed to cast ballots for attorney general. When voters have reached the end of their ballots, the iVotronic machine requires them to review and confirm their choices on the touch-screen.

If an item were left blank, he said, a message would appear reading, "No ion made." At that point, the voter would have been allowed to return to that question and make a choice. He or she would not have been required to start from scratch.

"I think they probably just didn't feel strongly enough to go back," Horton said.

Voter's responsibility

Whether the undervotes are intentional or not, state officials said, voters must take responsibility for them.

The state considers undervotes to be a "voter's prerogative," not a problem with the system, said Jenny Nash, from Florida's Department of State.

State election officials were criticized after the 2000 election in which confusing ballots led to tens of thousands of presidential votes being thrown out for failing to provide strong enough oversight of local election supervisors.

Nash said that, although the state now requires ballots to follow certain guidelines with respect to the size of print and the order in which races are listed, local officials "are 100 percent responsible" for the layout of the electronic ballot.

Jeff Sadosky, a spokesman for the Florida Republican Party, said the most likely explanation is that some voters chose not to cast ballots in those races.

"We don't know what a person's intent was," Sadosky said.

But state Democratic Party spokesman Mark Bubriski said it didn't make sense that so many voters wouldn't want to have a say in the contentious Sarasota congressional race or the state attorney-general contest.

"Clearly, there's a problem here, and what it is, we don't know," Bubriski said.

Recount in Sarasota

In Sarasota County, election officials were no closer to understanding why 18,382 people did not or could not vote in the House race there.

The high number of undervotes in that race represented more than 1-in-8 people who went to the polls in Sarasota County. By comparison, the undervotes in the races for governor and U.S. Senate on the same ballot were a little more than 1 percent.

The race was so close that it likely will trigger a recount required in Florida when the difference between two candidates is 0.5 percent or less.

"We are focused today [Thursday] on doing the logistics of the recount," said Kathy Dent, Sarasota County's top election official. Voters were complaining to the office for much of the day.

One common complaint was the difficulty of finding the House race on the machine because it was listed on the same screen as the governor's race.

But Coffey dismissed putting responsibility solely on ballot design.

"You have too many elections in too many places that have ballot issues and design issues, and nothing this dramatic and distressing has occurred," he said.

"It was systematic failure with the actual machines themselves."

Still, voters told the Sentinel they had trouble seeing the House race.

One of them, Sarasota County resident Ron Pickett, said he intended to vote for Jennings in the House race but was unable to find the contest on-screen.

"I didn't see the Christine Jennings-Vern Buchanan race at all," said Pickett, 67, a recent retiree from Chicago.

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