Butt out, Dean; Buchanan won

A Times Editorial
Published December 10, 2006

The disappointment Christine Jennings feels is understandable. She lost the District 13 congressional race by a mere 369 votes only to learn that 18,000 Sarasota County ballots were cast with no choice in that contest. So the Democrat sued over the results and showed up for freshman orientation at the Capitol alongside Republican Vern Buchanan, the official winner. Now Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean has blundered into the controversy, calling on House Democrats who will control Congress next year to deny Buchanan his seat and order a new election.

The race's troubling aspects have morphed into absurdity. It is time to bring finality. Jennings should concede defeat and the Democratic Party should butt out.

Jennings accomplished what she set out to do with her initial protest. The state Division of Elections did a thorough audit of touch-screen voting machines used in Sarasota and found no system breakdowns or abnormalities. While that doesn't resolve the mystery, analysis by the media and election experts indicates what likely happened. It appears ballot design played a key role in the undervote. The District 13 candidates were listed on a screen dominated by the governor's race, so voters who hurried could have overlooked them. Many voters reported spotting the mistake on the review screen and correcting it.

Unfortunately, Jennings is still blaming voting machine malfunction for the outcome despite contrary evidence. Perhaps that's because the only reason a court would consider ordering a new election is proof of widespread fraud or machine error. While Floridians should be concerned and election officials more careful about ballot design, there isn't sufficient reason to throw out the results.

It would be a big mistake for House Democrats to heed Dean's advice. No election is perfect, and Americans likely would resent a partisan political effort to interfere in the will of voters, no matter how misguided or inattentive they were in casting their ballots.

Instead of stirring up voter discontent, Jennings should put her energy into planning a political future. Buchanan will have to face the voters again in two years, so it is not in Jennings' best interest to come across as a sore loser if she wants to run again. She has raised some legitimate questions about the voting process in Florida, which election officials have taken seriously and investigated thoroughly. It seems improbable that 18,000 voters intentionally skipped the hotly contested congressional race, but no evidence of fraud or equipment malfunction has been found.

It's time for Jennings to bow out and for Democrats to stop fanning fears about electronic voting machines without much more than suspicions.