February 24, 2007

Investigators: Florida Voters Still Can't Read A Ballot

An investigation by Florida election officials into an 18,000-vote gap in a 2006 Congressional district last November has concluded that the voting machines worked properly, but that Floridians once again could not comprehend the ballot. The conclusion by a blue-ribbon panel of university researchers will likely doom efforts of the Democratic runner-up to get a new election:

Florida election officials announced yesterday that an examination of voting software did not find any malfunctions that could have caused up to 18,000 votes to be lost in a disputed Congressional race in Sarasota County, and they suggested that voter confusion over a poor ballot design was mainly to blame.

The finding, reached unanimously by a team of computer experts from several universities, could finally settle last fall’s closest federal election. The Republican candidate, Vern Buchanan, was declared the winner by 369 votes, but the Democrat, Christine Jennings, formally contested the results, claiming that the touch-screen voting machines must have malfunctioned.

Legal precedents make it difficult to win a lawsuit over ballot design, but a substantial error in the software might have been grounds for a new election.

The questions about the electronic machines arose because many voters complained that they had had trouble getting their votes to register for Ms. Jennings, and the machines did not have a back-up paper trail that might have provided clues about any problems. The report said some voters might have accidentally touched the screen twice, thus negating their votes, while most of the others probably overlooked the race on the flawed ballot.

Needless to say, voters in the district seem a little unhappy with the conclusion that thirteen percent of them are so incompetent that they could not properly cast their votes. However, the independent panel ran the machines and their software through the wringer and could not find any malfunctions. Further, they said that any such problem would have affected more than one race, and no evidence of severe undervoting arose from the other races on the ballot.

The positioning of the Jennings-Buchanan contest appears to have caused the problem. The two-person race got stuck between multiple-candidate lists, making it difficult to pick them out. The electronic ballot, which used pictures and touch screens, did not highlight the race in the same way as it did others, making it easier to miss. Eighty-seven percent of Sarasota-area voters managed to find it, of course, but not the rest.

What next? Jennings wants another investigation, but this should drive a stake through the heart of the effort. If there was no software malfunction that actually changed votes, then there is no reason for a special election to revote between Jennings and Buchanan. The House could unseat Buchanan and seat Jennings in his place, but that seems rather unlikely, given the results of this investigation. It doesn't affect the balance of power, and if no malfeasance can be found, it would prove highly inflammatory in a session that already has enough to inflame it. Jennings will have to wait until next year and try again to win the seat.

Once again, however, this shows that jumping into solutions in a panic just creates more problems down the road. Before Florida started buying voting systems after the 2000 Presidential election embarrassment, they should have stopped to consider what they wanted in balloting systems -- and a paper trail probably would have been near the top of a list generated by a rational process. In the end, however, it makes little difference what balloting system is used when the ballot itself is poorly designed, a lesson that also should have been learned from 2000.

MINOR CORRECTION: The investigators ran them through the wringer, not the ringer, although the image of Quasimodo as a beta tester has its humor. Thanks to CQ reader Kirk H for the note.


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