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GAO Agrees to Test Florida Voting Machines

A House task force voted Tuesday to allow the Government Accountability Office to move forward with a series of new tests, which, when complete, will allow the agency to say with “reasonable certainty” whether electronic voting machines failed last year in Florida’s 13th district House race.

Nabajyoti Barkakati, a technology expert with the GAO who appeared Tuesday before the House Administration’s special elections task force, said preliminary analysis of the data from Sarasota County so far has yielded no indication that any particular voting machine characteristic caused the large number of “undervotes” in the November 2006 race between Democrat Christine Jennings and now-Rep. Vern Buchanan (R). But he said further testing could provide an increased — though not absolute — assurance that the machines were not the problem.

Jennings, who the state certified lost by 369 votes, has alleged that the electronic voting machines contributed to more than 18,000 undervotes — when ballots are cast but a choice for a particular candidate goes unrecorded either because of machine error, ballot design or other factors. Although the Sarasota-based district leans Republican in most elections, Jennings was thought to be leading the race heading into Election Day. The three-Member election task force was created this spring to review the contested election.

Barkakati said Tuesday that if machine error were to be ruled out, then ballot layout and user error would be the likely explanations for the large undervote.

The GAO’s analysis of the case, which is moving into its fifth month, has found that some of the prior tests and reviews conducted by Florida and Sarasota County elections officials provide assurance that certain components of the voting systems functioned correctly. Barkakati said Tuesday that further testing in of a greater sampling of machines in three specific ways would allow the GAO to be 99 percent certain in the matter.

The task force gave the GAO permission Tuesday to test 115 machines that have been impounded from the race and to test each in all 112 identified ways that a voter could use the voting system. (Various selection options include users changing their selection mid-vote, using a combinations of “page back” and “review screen” options, among many others).

Sarasota County election officials have informed the GAO that they can help agency inspectors access the machines and provide a test site between Nov. 26 and Dec. 7.

The task force’s chairman, Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (D-Texas), said Tuesday that the GAO “needs to take advantage of that window of opportunity and in no way wait until 2008,” as the task force is relying on the agency’s findings as it reviews the circumstances of the Florida 13th district race.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), the lone Republican on the task force, said Tuesday that he supports the further testing and hopes that more certain findings will allow the task force to finish its review of the 2006 race before Congress gets too much further into the 2008 election cycle.

“The result of this investigation thus far seems to clearly point that there is no smoking gun,” McCarthy said in his opening statement. “No evidence that the voting system would have caused the undervote, a conclusion similar to what Sarasota County, the state of Florida and independent teams of experts have already derived. … I agree with the GAO’s recommendations to move forward with those additional tests so that it can make its eventual recommendation with a ‘reasonable certainty’ and finally put to rest for the people of the 13th district of Florida the challenge against Congressman Vern Buchanan.”

Jennings, who seems to have given up on challenging the election results in court, announced in July that she is seeking a rematch with Buchanan in 2008.

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