by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
November 8, 2006
13TH DISTRICT BATTLE ROYALE ISN'T OVER YET
SARASOTA, Fla., Nov. 8, 2006, 3:49 a.m. -- Florida has done it again. A tight and very costly Congressional race has gone into extra innings over votes that were cast on electronic machines without a paper trail.
The nation's most expensive Congressional race produced a dead-heat margin of 368 votes shortly after midnight Tuesday, but the nightmare scenario of counting errors and voting machine glitches that marred the 2000 election reared its ugly head again - this time due to electronic voting machines that lack the vaunted "paper trail" of most Florida counties.
And a veteran of that three-week war, election attorney Kendall Coffey of Miami, is suddenly thrust into the spotlight again as he heads into a morning - and likely several more days - of what seems certain to be a contested election.
"A lot of votes disappeared somehow," said Coffey, a Jennings attorney who fought for Al Gore in the 2000 campaign, told reporters. "We're very troubled about it."
And ironically, it's not just for any seat, but the 13th District abandoned by Rep. Katherine Harris in a hopeless, costly run for U.S. Senate. In a supreme irony - or a curse rising from the "hanging chads" of six years ago - Harris was the Bush Administration ally who as Fla. secretary of state who certified President George W. Bush as the winner by 537 votes in 2000. Mr. Bush came to Sarasota to stump for Buchanan just two weeks ago, and Vice President Dick Cheney, First Lady Laura Bush and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani came here to raise money for him.
After the polls closed, a battle royale unfolded as numbers-crunchers saw Democratic moderate Christine Jennings of Sarasota come from far behind - first erasing the eight-point lead Buchanan held after 37 percent of the vote was tallied to narrow the gap to four points, and then two points with just 18 precincts unreported. Then, Sarasota Herald-Tribune political reporter Jeremy Wallace dropped a bombshell. He told an anchorman for SNN, the tiny ABC affiliate and Herald-Tribune partner here that some 70,000 votes - not just a few thousand, as first thought - remained uncounted. The first explanation: they were absentee ballots and the results of two weeks of early voting.
But that explanation didn't wash, at least not at Jennings' noisy, crowded victory party at Michael's on East, where supporters were treated to a full repast and free drinks as the votes trickled in. Absentee ballots are normally counted first, and the local Supervisor of Elections, Kathy Dent - fighting off a ballot measure called SAFE that would require paper trails for Sarasota County's electronic-only machines - had announced that counting of early voting ballots began on Friday, Nov. 3. And a caller to WWPR's "It's Your Gavel" political talk show on Tuesday complained that Buchanan people got wind of the early results.
So did all those ballots go uncounted until Tuesday? As Wallace explained, the discrepancy was in the difference between the number of votes counted in 2002 and those counted last night, after four years of soaring population growth.
Before that question was answered, the SNN anchor announced that the number of uncounted votes dropped from 70,000 to 53,000. All those votes were from Sarasota County, which the SNN team said earlier had gone for Jennings. With less than 4,000 votes from all four counties of the district separating her from Vern Buchanan, a Republican millionaire with a complicated history of big financial deals gone wrong, the outstanding votes could mean victory for Jennings if they broke the same way as the Nov. 7 voting. For Buchanan, in his first political contest - he's spent some $6 million of his estimated $50 million fortune - the count must have been excruciating.
Jennings took the stage before a bevy of cameras a little before midnight. In what sounded like a lingering echo from 2000, she told supporters "every vote must be counted." Obviously, something was up, but few knew what. Many supporters headed home.
After another 45 minutes while the die-hards refilled their glasses and offered speculation, Jennings came back. She took the stage this time and announced: "Well, it's not the kind of night I thought it would be, exactly." Unifficially, she was behind by 368 votes, she said, and if that margin held, an automatic recount is required under Florida law.
The subtext, though, is that during the two weeks of early voting that ended last Friday, the airwaves and newspapers were full of reports from Jennings voters who complained that when they cast a vote for Jennings, the vote did not appear on the "review" page just before the ballot is submitted. On Tuesday, Coffey told The American Reporter, at least 50 voters had complained to the campaign and elections officials that their votes for Jennings could not be cast.
Thus, when the margin of victory turned out to be less than one quarter of one percent of the vote, Florida's controversial manual recount statute kicked in.
"It should be a matter of days, not weeks," he said.
But now, with the documented complaints and issues of ballot design - and even the possibility of electronic tampering - more complexity has crept into the mix. As Coffey explained, there must be an automatic recount in some close races, but when the race ends up with less than a quarter-point margin there must be a manual recount of all votes cast in all four counties of the 13th District. Yet, he said, it isn't clear whether they can actually conduct a manual recount without a paper trail.
If the ballot design or the computer programming that resulted in the glitch were found sufficiently irregular, one possible result might be a "do-over" - a new election. That would probably be another Florida first.
But while Coffey said officials in Tallahassee told him there is a way to conduct a recount of electronic machines, he clearly had doubts. Asked about election supervisor Dent's opportunity to correct voting irregularities during two weeks of early voting, he responded, "They were raised with the Supervisor of Elections. But based on what we saw today, the problems weren't solved, purely and simply. There were concerns; there may have been good faith efforts; but whatever occurred, it was not a solution."
The supervisor, in fact, had gone on television Monday and branded voters who complained that during early voting they had not been able to vote for Jennings as "political" supporters of the SAFE ballot initiative, which would require paper trails. But on election night, similar issues cropped up in more than 36 states, according to CNN, which has been running full-tilt at the paperless electronic voting scandal that embroiled manufacturers of several of the most widely-used machines.
Coffey also told The American Reporter that the Democratic National Committee had already contacted the campaign and urged them to keep up the fight, offering expert help and lawyers. "But all the decisions are Christine's alone," he said, giving the petite former banker an out if it all becomes too much. He'll be working out of her campaign headquarters for the next few days, he said.
Did something go wrong? Coffey offered some strong circumstantial evidence it did. Whether due to a ballot design that made it difficult to find Jennings' name or mangled program code, there was a "drop-off" between the senatorial, gubernatorial and state vote counts and Jennings' race of "nine or 10,000 votes" - almost 10 times the drop-off in the district's 2002 mid-term elections.
It seems difficult, maybe impossible, to explain a 10,000-vote anomaly as normal voting behavior. But Sarasota County voters have no more patience for the Republican vote supervisor, Dent; the SAFE ballot initiative passed by a large margin.
UPDATE 11/08/06, 7:30 p.m.: CNN's Wolf Blitzer just issued a bulletin on this race. CNN said the "undervote" - now estimated at 18,000 votes - was confined to Sarasota County and did not appear in any of the other four counties in which parts of the district are located. A state commission on election disputes will rule Monday on whether a recount is required.
Joe Shea is a member of the Manatee County Democratic Executive Committee and a regular contributor to Democratic causes and candidates.