Friday, November 24, 2006

Stealing Sarasota

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Have you all heard what happened in Florida's 13th congressional district, specifically in Sarasota County? Jonathan Chait summed it up at The Plank a few days ago:

It seems beyond dispute that malfunctioning voting machines cost Democrat Christine Jennings a House seat in Florida's 13th District. Jennings lost by 369 votes. Meanwhile, more than 17,000 voting machines in Sarasota County, which Jennings won by six percentage points, failed to register any vote at all for the hotly contested House race. That's an undervote rate almost six times as high as other counties.

And E.J. Dionne addressed it today at the Post:

Here's the story so far: The official vote count in the battle for -- you won't believe this -- Katherine Harris's seat put Republican Vern Buchanan 369 votes ahead of Democrat Christine Jennings out of roughly 238,000 votes cast.

But in Sarasota County, there was an "undervote" of more than 18,000 -- meaning that those voters supposedly didn't choose to record votes in the Buchanan-Jennings race. Jennings carried the county 53 percent to 47 percent.

The Sarasota undervote in the congressional race amounted to nearly 15 percent. Kendall Coffey, Jennings's lawyer, has pointed out that in the other four counties in the district, the undervote ranged from 2.2 to 5.3 percent. Put another way, roughly 18,000 of the 21,000 undervotes in the contest came from Sarasota County.

Which is to say, 13,000 to 15,000 votes just, uh, disappeared, vanished. Into thin air? No, into the nebulous inner-workings of Sarasota's voting machines. Whatever happened, or however it happened, or whoever's responsible for what happened, these thousands and thousands of votes -- in a Jennings stronghold -- "were probably not counted". Surely she would have made up the 369 votes. Easily. And she, not Buchanan, should be heading to Washington.

In the Times today (well, TimesSelect), Paul Krugman asked this question: "Do we have to wait for a constitutional crisis to realize that we’re in danger of becoming a digital-age banana republic?" This may not be a constitutional crisis, but it is an electoral crisis. Since the outcome of this election doesn't affect the balance of power in the House, there hasn't been all that much attention on what would otherwise be a national scandal (and a constitutional crisis). But, as Dionne argues, this also allows what happened in Sarasota to be a test case on what can go wrong with e-voting: "Control of the House does not depend on how this race turns out. It is therefore in the interest of both parties, not to mention the country, to be simultaneously aggressive and judicious in figuring out what went wrong in Sarasota and to use that knowledge to fix the nation's voting system before a major disaster strikes."

Jennings is demanding a new election. Like Krugman, I think "[s]he deserves one". Given that the "result" of the election was obviously wrong, given that there's no reasonable explanation for the high undervote, given that thousands of voters didn't have their votes registered, there is no way that the outcome -- Buchanan's "victory" -- is legitimate. It would be a travesty if Buchanan were to take the seat. There must be another election, a fair and accurate one. Otherwise, the crisis of confidence in American democracy -- and we all know there is one -- will only deepen.

For more, see The Carpetbagger Report, DownWithTyranny!, The Brad Blog (which is always on top of voting fiascos), and Daily Kos.

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