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No flaws found early in audit of Sarasota voting machines

Election workers are casting mock ballots as they test the touch screens for glitches.

Published November 29, 2006


SARASOTA - State elections workers huddled around touch screen monitors Tuesday, casting mock ballots as they tried to determine whether voting machines properly recorded votes in the disputed District 13 congressional race.

The audit of Sarasota County's machines is trying to determine why they recorded more than 18,000 no-votes - or undervotes - in the Nov. 7 contest between Republican Vern Buchanan and Democrat Christine Jennings. That's an undervote percentage about six times higher than in the district's four other counties.

A manual recount showed Buchanan won the House seat being vacated by Republican Rep. Katherine Harris by 369 votes districtwide. But Jennings sued to contest the election, arguing that voting machines malfunctioned in this county.

Jennings on Tuesday continued to call for an independent audit of the machines and said she is prepared for a long fight.

"I am here to say I will never give up until we truly, to the best of our ability, know what happened," said Jennings, who also has asked a judge to order a new election. "I will not let the voters down."

Tuesday, teams of state elections employees conducted a simulated election on five touch screen voting machines that were prepared but not used for the Nov. 7 election. An audit of machines actually used in the election is planned for Friday.

The workers were following tight scripts of 10 predetermined voting patterns, such as initially skipping the Jennings-Buchanan race, then going back to make a choice.

"They're trying to simulate Election Day as close as possible," state elections spokeswoman Jenny Nash said.

The touch screens were being videotaped, so the images could be checked for human error if there are found to be discrepancies between the scripts and the votes recorded by the machines, Nash said.

Nash said all machines were initially working properly Tuesday, bolstering claims by Buchanan's attorney Hayden Dempsey that machine error was not to blame for the undervotes.

"If there was any credibility to the Jennings' claim, we would have already seen some evidence of machine malfunction," Dempsey said.

Jennings' attorney Kendall Coffey took issue with the auditing process, contending that the audit by state elections volunteers doesn't replicate actual voter behavior and removes the "human dynamic," such as different ways voters touch the computer screens to record votes.

"You wouldn't do a public opinion poll by surveying Democratic Party staff," Coffey said. "You wouldn't test problems with Ford Motor Co. cars by using Ford employees as testers."

Auditing of paperwork will continue today and Thursday before the second test of voting machines Friday.

[Last modified November 29, 2006, 05:26:29]

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