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12 February 2008, 08:58

Electronic voting in Florida found not guilty

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According to a recently filed US General Accounting Office (GAO) investigation report, there is no indication that faulty touchscreen voting computers in Sarasota, Florida incorrectly recorded votes in the 2006 general election. Once the official results were in, Republican Vern Buchanan had won the race against Democrat Christine Jennings for Florida's 13th Congressional District seat in the House of Representatives by a slim margin of only 369 out of a total of 237,861 votes. But strangely, in one of the five communities in the in the voting district, the iVotronic voting machines manufactured by Election Systems & Software (ES&S) recorded incomplete votes on a massive scale. Apparently 18,412 voters in Sarasota County deliberately abstained from voting in the race between Jennings and Buchanan, despite having cast votes for candidates for the Senate, Governor and even the Hospital Board.

At 13 per cent the abstention rate known as "undervoting" was ten times higher than it was in the other elections on the same ballot, and was also significantly higher than the 2-5 per cent rate in the neighbouring communities. The mysterious "disappearance" of votes severely undermined trust in paperless, electronic vote counting, and resulted in a policy-shift in early 2007 by Charlie Crist, who succeeded George Bush's brother, Jeb Bush, as Governor – Crist advocated the return to vote counting using paper ballots and optical scanners.

To carry out the audit of the election that the defeated Democrat demanded, the US House of Representatives Committee on House Administration created an investigation task force, which then charged the General Accounting Office with the investigation. In their final report (PDF file), the GAO investigators came to the conclusion that there was nothing conspicuous in the iVotronic devices.

According to their information, they determined with "sufficient assurance" using a statistically representative sample of 115 of the 1499 machines used in Sarasota County, that the iVotronics firmware conformed to the source code in escrow at the Florida Voting Commission. They did this by "witnessing" a rebuild of the firmware in their development department using the source code. Test votes, in which no recording or display errors occurred, were then conducted on ten machines. In additional tests, using purposefully incorrectly calibrated LCD monitors, they investigated the possibility that the coordinates on the touch-sensitive layer on the screen my deviate from those of the soft keys displayed underneath. The incorrect calibration made entry of the input more difficult, but the voters' selection was recorded exactly as it was displayed on the screen.

The accounting office considers the tests performed appropriate and adequate. It cannot, however, explain the statistical anomaly in Sarasota, but it is with "great certainty" not due to the touchscreen voting machines. Instead, the report vaguely indicates the possibility that voters purposefully abstained in the choice between Buchanan and Jennings or were not able to vote correctly due, "...potentially because of issues relating to interaction between voters and the ballot."

Based on the GAO report, the investigation task force, led by Democratic Representative Charles Gonzales, voted unanimously to recommend an end to the congressional investigation of the election. Observers are counting on the Committee on House Administration and later, the House of Representatives, to follow the recommendation and declare the case officially closed. (Richard Sietmann)


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