Sarasota race to be examined

Published May 3, 2007

WASHINGTON - Frustrated by a lack of action by Florida courts in the Sarasota election dispute, a congressional task force voted Wednesday to formally launch an investigation.

The panel voted 2-1 along partisan lines to investigate whether problems with electronic voting machines altered the outcome in the 13th Congressional District in November.

Republican Vern Buchanan was certified the winner by 369 votes, but Democrat Christine Jennings has challenged the results because nearly 18, 000 voters did not make a selection in the race. Jennings has said a software or hardware glitch prevented thousands of votes from being counted.

Jennings has asked a Florida appellate court for access to the software of the voting machines known as the source code, but after more than three months, the court has not ruled.

Task force members said the Florida courts were moving too slowly and that Congress had an obligation to conduct a speedy review and settle the dispute.

"There's no indication the courts are going to act - they have not acted yet, " said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., a member of the panel. She noted that House members serve a two-year term but the dispute has already taken six months.

The task force asked the non-partisan Government Accountability Office to conduct the investigation and examine the possibility of software or hardware problems.

The task force is controlled by Democrats, but it stopped short of fulfilling a request from Jennings' attorneys that the Jennings and Buchanan campaigns be given access to the source code. Panel members said the GAO, which has a reputation for being thorough and independent, would prevent the investigation from being politicized.

"They are objective and they have expertise that we do not have, " said Lofgren.

California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the lone Republican on the panel, voted against the investigation because he said there was insufficient evidence of problems with the election. But after the meeting, he said he was satisfied that the Democrats were proceeding fairly.

"I feel pretty positive about this, " he said.

Bill Adair can be reached at adair@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0575.