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Author: David Jefferson
The cause(s) of the undervote in the 2006 congressional race in Sarasota County, Florida, are still a mystery.
On November 7, 2006, there was an electoral disaster in Sarasota County, Florida. Almost 18,000 people, about one in seven of the people who voted electronically, left the polls without recording a vote in the congressional race, the hottest race on the ballot. Most observers agree that few of these voters deliberately skipped voting in that race. Instead, they were either misled into not seeing that race or the voting machines somehow failed to record their votes. There is consensus on one point, however. Although Republican Vern Buchanan was certified the winner by only 369 out of more than 238,000 votes and is now representing the 13th Congressional District of Florida (CD13) in the U.S. House of Representatives, if the “missing” votes had been recorded, Democrat Christine Jennings would almost certainly have been elected (Stewart, 2006).
This election illustrates in dramatic fashion not only the complex problems that arise with the use of all-electronic voting systems, but also the deep concerns of computer scientists and security experts about total reliance on software to capture and count votes in public elections. A considerable amount of technical investigation has been done into the circumstances of this election, and many hypotheses have been eliminated. But to date (April 2007), the exact cause(s) are not known with complete certainty—indeed, they may never be known.
CD13 is comprised of four counties (Sarasota, Manatee, Hardee, and Desoto) and part of a fifth (Charlotte). The district as a whole has leaned Republican in recent years, although the most populous county, Sarasota, where the problem occurred, leans Democratic. There was no incumbent in the 2006 CD13 election, and both candidates for the seat had won very bitter primaries against multiple opponents. For these reasons, and because control of the House of Representatives was considered a toss-up between the two major parties, the race was hotly contested, and the candidates had blanketed the media with massive advertising. The race cost $13.1 million, including the costs of the primary contests, making it the single most expensive House race in U.S. history (Wallace, 2007).
Sarasota County used iVotronic voting machines built by Election Systems and Software, the largest voting system vendor in the United States. The iVotronic, which has a touch-screen interface (Figure 1), is one of a class of voting machines, paperless, direct-recording electronic devices (DREs), that was widely adopted after the 2000 presidential election. Since then, paperless DREs have been the target of widespread criticism from technical experts, primarily because the vote counts they produce are not verifiable or auditable in any meaningful way.
Table 1 shows certified election returns from Sarasota County for the electronic votes cast in the three top races on the ballot—U.S. senator, U.S. representative, and governor. The table shows just the number of electronic votes for each race and each candidate (including early votes and those cast on election day), along with the number of undervotes (i.e., ballots that did not show a vote for any candidate in that race). Note that only the returns for Sarasota County are shown. When the other counties in the district are included, the final count shows Buchanan winning by 369 votes.
The key statistic in Table 1 is the percentage of electronic undervotes in the congressional race, shown in the far right column. The undervotes for the senate and gubernatorial races were 1.2 and 1.4 percent, respectively, which is typical for top-of-ballot races nationwide. The undervote in the congressional race was more than 10 times higher—14.9 percent of the electronic votes. The undervote rate, which varied from precinct to precinct, was almost 30 percent in some areas.
In a statistical analysis of the pattern of undervotes in Sarasota County, Professor Charles Stewart III of MIT estimated that the number of undervotes beyond the number expected was between 13,209 and 14,739. He further projected that, if those votes had been successfully cast and counted, Jennings would have won the election “by at least 739 votes, and possibly by as many as 825 votes” (Stewart, 2006). No one, not even Buchanan’s team, has disputed that conclusion, adding drama and political significance to what might otherwise be just a technical puzzle.