When Votes Disappear
By PAUL KRUGMAN
November 24, 2006
You know what really had me terrified on Nov. 7? The all-too-real possibility of a highly suspect result. What would we have done if the Republicans had held on to the House by a narrow margin, but circumstantial evidence strongly suggested that a combination of vote suppression and defective — or rigged — electronic voting machines made the difference?
Fortunately, it wasn’t a close election. But the fact that our electoral system worked well enough to register an overwhelming Democratic landslide doesn’t mean that things are O.K. There were many problems with voting in this election — and in at least one Congressional race, the evidence strongly suggests that paperless voting machines failed to count thousands of votes, and that the disappearance of these votes delivered the race to the wrong candidate.
Here’s the background: Florida’s 13th Congressional District is currently represented by Katherine Harris, who as Florida’s secretary of state during the 2000 recount famously acted as a partisan Republican rather than a fair referee. This year Ms. Harris didn’t run for re-election, making an unsuccessful bid for the Senate instead. But according to the official vote count, the Republicans held on to her seat, with Vern Buchanan, the G.O.P. candidate, narrowly defeating Christine Jennings, the Democrat.
The problem is that the official vote count isn’t credible. In much of the 13th District, the voting pattern looks normal. But in Sarasota County, which used touch-screen voting machines made by Election Systems and Software, almost 18,000 voters — nearly 15 percent of those who cast ballots using the machines — supposedly failed to vote for either candidate in the hotly contested Congressional race. That compares with undervote rates ranging from 2.2 to 5.3 percent in neighboring counties.
Reporting by The Herald-Tribune of Sarasota, which interviewed hundreds of voters who called the paper to report problems at the polls, strongly suggests that the huge apparent undervote was caused by bugs in the ES&S software.
About a third of those interviewed by the paper reported that they couldn’t even find the Congressional race on the screen. This could conceivably have been the result of bad ballot design, but many of them insisted that they looked hard for the race. Moreover, more than 60 percent of those interviewed by The Herald-Tribune reported that they did cast a vote in the Congressional race — but that this vote didn’t show up on the ballot summary page they were shown at the end of the voting process.
If there were bugs in the software, the odds are that they threw the election to the wrong candidate. An Orlando Sentinel examination of other votes cast by those who supposedly failed to cast a vote in the Congressional race shows that they strongly favored Democrats, and Mr. Buchanan won the official count by only 369 votes. The fact that Mr. Buchanan won a recount — that is, a recount of the votes the machines happened to record — means nothing.
Although state officials have certified Mr. Buchanan as the victor, they’ve promised an audit of the voting machines. But don’t get your hopes up: as in 2000, state election officials aren’t even trying to look impartial. To oversee the audit, the state has chosen as its “independent” expert Prof. Alec Yasinsac of Florida State University — a Republican partisan who made an appearance on the steps of the Florida Supreme Court during the 2000 recount battle wearing a “Bush Won” sign.
Ms. Jennings has now filed suit with the same court, demanding a new election. She deserves one.
But for the nation as a whole, the important thing isn’t who gets seated to represent Florida’s 13th District. It’s whether the voting disaster there leads to legislation requiring voter verification and a paper trail.
And I have to say that the omens aren’t good. I’ve been shocked at how little national attention the mess in Sarasota has received. Here we have as clear a demonstration as we’re ever likely to see that warnings from computer scientists about the dangers of paperless electronic voting are valid — and most Americans probably haven’t even heard about it.
As far as I can tell, the reason Florida-13 hasn’t become a major national story is that neither control of Congress nor control of the White House is on the line. But do we have to wait for a constitutional crisis to realize that we’re in danger of becoming a digital-age banana republic?
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company