'Smoking gun' or minor problem?

The elections chief downplays memo on voting issues, but an attorney sees something else.

Published March 16, 2007

Florida's new top elections official downplayed the significance of a memo that warned of a voting machine problem months before the November election, which resulted in a disputed victory in a congressional race in the Sarasota area.

Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning called the delay of some machines in recording votes - the subject of a memo to local election leaders from the vote machine company - a "very minor problem."

But Browning, who was Pasco County's election chief last fall, changed his own Election Day plan as a result of the memo. He pulled 40 machines he had in stock that were subject to the vote-delay problem.

Browning said his decision was out of an abundance of caution, not because he believed the machines would malfunction.

But on Thursday, news of the memo, which had remained mysteriously out of public view during a debate over why thousands of voters apparently failed to cast a ballot in the Sarasota race, revived the sagging hopes of some Democrats still eager to claim the seat.

The losing Democratic candidate, Christine Jennings, planned to use the new information in her pending lawsuit and Florida Democrats in the U.S. House urged congressional leaders to launch an investigation.

The root of the issue now is an Aug. 15 letter that Election Systems & Software sent to 11 counties warning them that some touch-screen machines could take several seconds to register a vote after a button was pressed.

The company recommended a "firmware" fix and special signs to warn voters to be especially persistent with their choices, but neither recommendation was followed. In the Sarasota-area congressional race, more than 18,000 people voted in other races on Election Day, but recorded no selection in the race between Jennings and eventual winner Republican Vern Buchanan.

Buchanan was certified the winner by a few hundred votes and has taken the seat in Congress, but Jennings has maintained that those "undervotes" were the result of malfunctioning machines that distorted the results of the race. Her attorney says the memo is a "smoking gun" that shows some machines were, in fact, faulty.

State and Sarasota County officials said this week that despite the response delay, the machines worked properly.

Browning said he didn't raise the issue as a wider problem because he didn't see it as his job.

"I was responsible for Pasco," he said. "Sarasota, Broward, Miami-Dade - all of these counties got the same letter I got. They could have made the same decision, or they could have installed the software."

In a letter Thursday, the nine Democratic House members from Florida urged the House Administration Committee to create a special task force to review the election.

"That these revelations are coming to light now, through press reports, suggests that the potential for fraud in this election was real, that it was known by the responsible officials and that these officials did nothing about it," they wrote in a letter to the committee.

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Anita Kumar can be reached at akumar@sptimes.com or 202-463-0576.