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Jennings' fight ropes in House

Early edition: If Florida fails her, she wants Congress to intervene.

By Alisa Ulferts and Wes Allison
Published December 20, 2006


WASHINGTON, D.C. — Democrat Christine Jennings formally asked the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday to intervene in her fight to claim the District 13 congressional seat, saying all Sarasota voters deserve to have their vote count.

Republican Vern Buchanan has been certified as the winner with a 369-vote edge, but Jennings thinks many of the 18,000 voters who appear to have sat out the controversial race actually intended to vote for her.

Jennings has asked the House Administration Committee to investigate and possibly order another election if her Florida court challenge fails.

“We do hope that the Florida courts will resolve this, that’s our first desire,” Jennings said after filing the papers Wednesday evening in Washington. “But in case that doesn’t happen, we want to protect ourselves by having the opportunity to go to Congress and the House.”

If Florida courts don’t order a new election or require an examination of the voting machines and computer software, Jennings said she hopes Congress will.

She said her goal is “to make sure voters have confidence in their voting system.”

Buchanan criticized Jennings’ decision to involve the House.

“Christine Jennings’ decision to challenge her loss undermines confidence in an election process that has been validated and upheld by several independent reviews,” Buchanan spokeswoman Sally Tibbetts said.
Congressional members are scheduled to be seated Jan. 4.

Congress is unlikely to immediately intervene in the contest, said Salley Collins, a spokeswoman for the House Administration Committee.

The precedent is to swear in the state-certified winner and then investigate the contest.
Collins said the committee can begin investigating after the appeal, but it usually waits to see what the state courts decide. Buchanan has 30 days to respond to the challenge.

“Some of these are resolved in a matter of weeks, but some drag on for months,” Collins said.

Tibbetts said Buchanan will respond to Jennings’ filing.

A spokesman for incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called Jennings’ filing appropriate.

“The Federal Contested Elections Act was written specifically to address such serious situations, where thousands of voters may have been denied participation in the election and the outcome is in doubt,’’ spokesman Brendan Daly said.

But he added that Pelosi hopes the case is resolved in Florida, not the House. The Democrats, who won control of Congress in the last election, have promised bipartisanship, and members from both parties say getting the House involved in untangling this race could lead to lasting bitterness.

In Tallahassee, Jennings’ attorneys continued to press their demand in court that the company who provided Sarasota County’s electronic voting machines be required to disclose their secret software codes so independent experts could examine the machines for malfunctions.

Several state audits have found no evidence of machine malfunction.

Election Systems & Software has fought the motion, part of Jennings’ and a group of voters’ larger lawsuit asking Leon Circuit Court Judge William Gary to throw out the election results.

ES&S contends the software amounts to a trade secret and should be protected under state law.

The judge could rule as early as Friday, the day he ordered both sides to provide him with proposed rulings. The defense rested its case after its only witness, Dartmouth College associate professor Michael Herron, testified Wednesday.

Herron said his review of electronic ballot images from Sarasota County and other Florida counties that use similar machines led him to believe it was ballot design, not machine malfunction, that caused Sarasota’s striking undervote.

In other counties where more than one race appeared on the screen, as happened in the congressional race in Sarasota County, undervotes could reach as high as 25 percent, Herron said.

“In my judgement, all the evidence we’ve seen points to ballot format,” Herron said.

Times Staff Writer Joni James contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.

[Last modified December 20, 2006, 21:56:15]

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