Feinsten calls for review of machines in Sarasota race

Published February 7, 2007

WASHINGTON — The chairwoman of a U.S. Senate committee called on two federal agencies Wednesday to examine the voting machines used in last year’s disputed Sarasota congressional election.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, is asking the General Accountability Office and the National Institute of Standards and Technology to conduct “top to bottom investigation” of the machines in Sarasota County.

Feinstein’s remarks came during a Senate Rules Committee hearing on electronic election reform that largely focused on the race between Republican Vern Buchanan and Democrat Christine Jennings.

“Now, there are those who say it’s impossible to adopt meaningful security and verifiability requirements for the 2008 election,’’ she said. “But one only has to look at what happened in Sarasota to see how dangerous it might be to wait.”

Buchanan was sworn into office last month but Jennings continues to dispute her slim loss both in the Florida courts and in Congress.

Touch screen voting machines in Sarasota County recorded that more than 18,000 people, or 13 percent of all voters, did not vote for either candidate, a rate higher than in other counties in the district.

Jennings, sitting with one of her attorneys in the second row of the audience, said that she welcomed the senator’s unexpected move.

“That’s as good as it gets,’’ she said. “I think it’s huge.”

It’s unclear whether the inquiry would include both the hardware and the software inside the voting machines.
Jennings has already sued in an attempt to force a private voting machine company to reveal the inner workings of its machines called the source code.

A Leon County judge ruled against her but she has appealed the decision.

State law in Florida and elsewhere protects the insides of voting machines from the public eye in deference to voting machine makers, who say such information amounts to a company’s trade secret.

But most of the voting experts who testified Wednesday said source codes should be opened in limited cases so voters are ensured their voters are being counted properly.

Jennings said she is hopeful that Feinstein’s committee will force the company to open the source code using subpoena power, if they need be. Her attorney plans to speak to Feinstein’s office.

About 100 people attended the hearing which included the testimony of two Democrats — Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida and Rep. Rush Holt of New Jersey.

Holt introduced a bill earlier this week that would require voter-verified paper ballots for every vote cast. Nelson plans to introduce a similar bill later this week.

“We went through this painful process in the 2000 presidential election and here we are going through it again,’’ Nelson said.

Just last week, Republican Florida Gov. Charlie Crist recommended spending more than $30-million to replace touch screens with paper ballots by 2008.

But Utah Sen. Robert Bennett, the top Republican on the committee, cautioned not to move quickly to a new system of machines without taking into account other possible problems, such as confusing ballot design or poor instructions.

Jennings has filed suit in Leon County, asking for a new vote, and also has taken the extreme measure of asking the House to intervene.

Traditionally, the House waits until all pending lawsuits are resolved before it launches its own inquiry, which could take weeks to months.

Usually the committee dismisses the case, though it could recommend to the full House that it order a new recount or new vote.

Anita Kumar can be reached at akumar@sptimes.com or 202-463-0576.