November 21, 2006 2:48 PM PST

Lawsuit alleges e-voting negligence in Florida

Public-interest groups and concerned voters have launched a new attack on what was supposed to be a higher-tech solution to Florida's hanging-chad brouhaha from the 2000 presidential contest.

A lawsuit filed in state court Tuesday alleges that election officials in Sarasota County did a shoddy job of selecting and managing touch-screen machines during this year's congressional election--and it calls for a re-vote. The left-leaning advocacy groups People for the American Way, Voter Action, American Civil Liberties Union of Florida and Electronic Frontier Foundation lodged the challenge on behalf of Republican and Democratic voters in the county.

The legal action follows reports from election officials that more than 18,000 of the county's ballots didn't register a vote in the district's U.S. House of Representatives race. That effectively meant 1 in 7 voters skipped that portion, which watchdogs said was an abnormally high "undervote" rate when compared with tallies from absentee ballots and from different brands of electronic machines used during the same election in neighboring counties.

After conducting a recount, county officials on Monday certified Republican Vern Buchanan as the winner by a 369-vote edge over Democrat Christine Jennings, according to published reports.

Jennings also filed a formal complaint in a county circuit court on Tuesday. Like the advocacy groups, she requested a new election and an investigation into the touch-screen machines, which she claimed were responsible for more than 17,000 of the missing votes.

"This is clearly a case of machine error--not ballot design error and not voter error," Jennings campaign attorney Kendall Coffey said in a statement.

The advocacy groups' complaint (click here for PDF) charges that Sarasota Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent failed to adequately investigate, identify or report various alleged malfunctions in the ES&S iVotronic touch-screen voting machines after receiving multiple complaints from voters and pollworkers during a two-week early voting period. The lawsuit also claims that Florida's Secretary of State disregarded warnings about the reliability of electronic systems made by Omaha, Neb.-based Election Systems & Services before certifying them for use.

"It is likely that the faulty machines, not the voters, decided this election," Howard Simon, executive director of ACLU of Florida, said in a statement.

Ironically, the county's voters overwhelmingly voted yes in the November 7 election to a referendum measure that proposed scrapping the existing $4.7 million paperless touch-screen system by 2008, according to local news reports. They said they would prefer use of optical scan devices, in which computers tally paper ballots marked with a No. 2 pencil, SAT-style.

Neither ES&S representatives nor Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent responded immediately to requests for comment on Tuesday.

The situation has revived calls from voter advocacy groups for a requirement that all direct-recording electronic machines, or DREs, like the ES&S iVotronic model used in Sarasota, be outfitted with paper trails that allow voters to verify that their selections were properly registered. Beyond boosting voter confidence, it's impossible to conduct a genuine recount without a paper-based backup, they have argued.

That argument was the subject of an earlier court case in Florida, filed two years ago by Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler and other state officials. The suit argued that failure to have paper trails allowing manual recounts on touch-screen machines was unconstitutional.

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