Welcome, Rep. Jennings!
Well, OK, it’s not actually Rep. Jennings. But Christine Jennings very much believes she should be Rep. Christine Jennings, D-Fla. And some of her Democratic would-be colleagues believe she should be, too.
They would have a good case — if only Jennings had won the election.
In case you haven’t been following it, Jennings ran against Republican Vern Buchanan in Florida’s 13th Congressional District.
It was close the whole way. On election night, Buchanan beat Jennings by 364 votes out of 238,000 votes cast.
It was entirely reasonable for Jennings to want a recount. And then another recount. But both confirmed Buchanan’s victory; by the end of the process, he was certified the winner by 369 votes.
That should have been it. But Jennings refused — and still refuses — to concede.
Some of her supporters have engaged in darkly conspiratorial musings about the number of undervotes in the race — that is, ballots in which people voted in other races but did not cast a vote in the Jennings vs. Buchanan contest.
There’s no doubt there were a lot of undervotes — about 18,000, a little less than 13 percent. The greatest number of them were concentrated in Sarasota County, although the 13th District also includes parts of four other counties.
The Jennings camp immediately suggested there was something wrong with Sarasota County’s electronic touchscreen voting machines.
But county officials looked the machines over and over, tested them and re-tested them, and found nothing wrong. “We did not have any equipment failure,” said county elections chief Kathy Dent.
So Jennings went to court. On the day Buchanan’s victory was certified, Jennings filed a lawsuit alleging the election results were off by thousands of votes because of the “pervasive malfunctioning of electronic voting machines.”
It sounded good, but there was absolutely no evidence to support Jennings’s claim. On the other hand, there were the undervotes. Everyone agrees that 18,000 undervotes is a lot (even though there had once been 12,000 undervotes in a 13th District race). What accounts for it?
That’s where three political scientists — James Honacker and Jeffrey Lewis of UCLA and Michael Herron of Dartmouth — come in.
Almost immediately after the election, they began looking into the matter. The paper they completed in late December, “Ballot Formats, Touchscreens and Undervotes: A Study of the 2006 Midterm Elections in Florida,” should be read by anyone interested in the race.
Just like the voting authorities, Honacker, Lewis, and Herron didn’t find any evidence of machine malfunction.
But they did find a problem with the way Sarasota County’s ballot was designed.
As it turned out, machines in other counties put the 13th District race on a screen of its own. Voters chose either Jennings or Buchanan.
But in Sarasota County, the 13th District race shared the same screen with the Florida governor’s race. The governor’s ballot included more candidates and took up much of the screen. And of course, it involved a race that had been featured heavily in the news.
All that, Honacker, Lewis, and Herron found, tended to draw voters’ eyes to the governor’s ballot — and away from the smaller, less-featured 13th District ballot. Thus the undervotes.
It was as simple as that.
Other findings supported the researchers’ conclusion. For example, they discovered that in other counties, when two or more other races were squeezed on the same screen, there was also a higher number of undervotes.
And this week the Sarasota Herald Tribune reported that in precincts where most voters were over 65 years of age, the undervote was a whopping 18 percent — 40 percent higher than precincts where most of the voters were younger. The obvious message is that some older voters had trouble handling the on-screen ballot arrangement.
All of which points to the finding that the ballot for the 13th District race in Sarasota County was confusing to some voters. Honacker, Lewis, and Herron concluded that touchscreen voting systems “should not combine important races on the same voting page.”
Well, that’s pretty obvious. But the bottom line is: no corruption, no stolen votes, no conspiracies. Just a flawed ballot, no doubt like other flawed ballots in other races around the country. It’s a problem to be fixed, not a crime to be investigated.
Jennings isn’t buying it. Heavily invested in the idea of machine malfunction, she went to court to demand the right to examine the voting machines’ software. Last week, a judge said no.
Now Jennings is pretty much down to her last option: politics. And even that isn’t looking so good.
The new Democratic House leadership could refuse to seat Buchanan, but instead it will simply launch an inquiry into the matter. Of course, that inquiry is almost certain to find what the previous inquiries have found.
And that means, in the end, Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., will stay right where he is. And yet another Florida frenzy will turn out to be unfounded.