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Thursday, November 16, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Florida touch screens fail to record choice on 21,000 ballots

Los Angeles Times

SARASOTA, Fla. — The touch screen now joins hanging chads and butterfly ballots in Florida's election-scandal lore.

More than 21,000 electronic ballots cast Nov. 7 in the 13th Congressional District race failed to record a choice to replace Republican Rep. Katherine Harris, triggering accusations of voting-machine malfunction and demands for a rerun of what voter advocacy groups call a massively flawed election.

The "undervotes," as skipped races on otherwise valid ballots are called, occurred most notably in Sarasota County, where Democrat Christine Jennings enjoyed her strongest support over Republican Vern Buchanan. Eighteen percent, or almost one in every five ballots, lacked a choice in the race, which Buchanan has claimed by 400 votes.

Jennings won 53 percent of the recorded vote in Sarasota County. If that percentage held through more than 18,000 undervotes in the county, she would pick up about 900 votes, more than twice what she would need to overtake Buchanan.

The latest chapter in this state's infamous history of electoral irregularities has rekindled the partisan confrontations that followed the 2000 presidential vote in Florida.

Suspicions about the electronic voting machines were fueled by reports from hundreds of voters who checked their ballot summary after voting and found no choice was registered in the House race.

Republicans and elections administrators attribute the number of voters skipping the 13th District race to an ugly campaign that turned off voters.

"Machines don't make mistakes," insisted Sarasota County elections supervisor Kathy Dent at a news conference Wednesday.

She said the Nov. 7 results had been confirmed in a machine recount and that she was "not anticipating that the results are going to change" in a manual recount expected to run through the end of the week.

Critics of the electronic voting systems complain those retabulations simply will duplicate the contested results; if the votes never were recorded, they won't be there to be recounted.

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That is the hope of Florida Republicans, who contend Buchanan won, if only by a 0.2 percent margin. And it is the fear of Democrats and voting-rights groups, who argue that the undervote — which is about eight times larger than in other counties and in previous elections — is clear evidence of a technical problem.

Jennings has not conceded the contest.

"Something clearly went very wrong in Sarasota County," said Reginald Mitchell, Florida legal counsel for the nonpartisan People for the American Way Foundation.

The Jennings campaign and voter advocacy groups want the iVotronics machines tested to determine whether a programming error or technical malfunction was responsible for the undervotes. The Democratic campaign won a court order Tuesday to sequester the machines until a bipartisan auditing team can inspect them.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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