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GAO Needs More Time on Fla. Vote

The Government Accountability Office warned a special House task force last week that an upcoming progress report will offer few conclusions about a still-contested Florida House race and that agency experts will need to dig deeper into whether voting machines were on the fritz in November.

Prior to the August recess, “it does not appear that there will be a definitive answer from GAO as far as what caused the ‘undervotes,’” the task force’s chairman, Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (D-Texas), told reporters on Friday. “There were two areas in which [the agency] did express that there may be some limitations, and they were looking as to whether they should expand on that.”

The GAO’s preliminary assessment, scheduled to be delivered at a hearing Friday, is an attempt by Democrats to settle alleged undervotes in last year’s contest between banker Christine Jennings (D) and now-Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.), which was decided by 369 votes.

Although Florida election officials certified Buchanan’s win, Jennings and some outside election experts continue to claim malfunctioning electronic voting machines led to thousands of votes going uncounted.

The House seated Buchanan in January, but Democrats warned they would pay close attention to progress in Jennings’ state court proceedings. Anything untoward, then-House Administration Chairwoman Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.) said, and her committee would not hesitate to step in.

“Now on appeal to your court is the question of access to this evidence,” Millender-McDonald wrote to a Florida appeals court judge on committee letterhead in January. “[The case] bears decisively on the prospect of conclusively establishing who was duly elected on Nov. 7.”

Millender-McDonald died in April. The panel is now chaired by Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.).

After months of appeals — and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees — Jennings’ campaign recently abandoned attempts to gain access to the inner workings of the electronic voting machines, which some speculate may be the linchpin to determining whether votes disappeared. The outside vendor that manufactured the equipment balked at Jennings’ pleas to provide its computers’ source code, arguing — in the end, successfully — that offering up such DNA would violate the company’s right to protect its proprietary information.

A Florida appeals court last month upheld a lower court’s decision denying Jennings’ request for the source code, a ruling that essentially ended Jennings’ hopes of resolving the alleged missing votes through the court system.

Meanwhile, with Jennings’ case stalled for months in the state court, the House Administration Committee earlier in the year convened a special elections subcommittee chaired by Gonzalez to monitor Jennings’ case. In early May 2007, the panel voted to have the GAO’s computer experts explore the allegations.

“I think we need to put this to rest,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said at the time.

Gonzalez said Friday that the equipment’s manufacturer, as well as Florida state and local election officials, are cooperating with the GAO’s investigation.

Originally expected to take weeks, GAO officials warned the panel in mid-June that it could take as long as six months — or perhaps even longer, depending on what its experts unearth — to sort though the facts of the case. The agency was ordered to give a comprehensive update of its findings before the gavel dropped for the August recess.

Despite few hard-and-fast conclusions for the time being, Gonzalez said Friday that he is certain the agency ultimately will deliver in its investigation, which could cost $1 million or more.

“My sense is that GAO … will be able to provide some answers. To the extent of the testing that was conducted — or additional testing that may be required — will provide us with answers about whether the machines malfunctioned and were a contributing factor to the undervote,” Gonzalez said. “We will have an answer, for sure.”

Jennings announced in July that she is challenging Buchanan in 2008.

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