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Analysts debating Florida 'undervotes'

Did machines err, or did the voters?

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Almost since the time the votes were tallied on election night, the race for Florida's 13th Congressional District has been surrounded by a contentious mystery: Why were there no votes for Congress recorded from more than 18,000 people who chose candidates in other races?

The answer is central not only to the outcome of the election, which for now has been won by Republican Vern Buchanan by a mere 369 votes and is in litigation, but also to the ongoing debates over whether the electronic voting systems in use nationwide can yield reliable tallies and recounts.

Coincidentally, the latest dust-up has occurred in the contest for the seat being vacated by Katherine Harris, who presided over Florida's election apparatus during the disputed 2000 contest between President Bush and Al Gore, a former vice president.

So far, there are three theories about the nonvotes of this month , and lots of political and legal posturing.

Maybe, as scores of voters have contended, there were glitches with the touch-screen systems and they dropped votes.

Or maybe voters overlooked the congressional race because of a confusing ballot design.

Or maybe, as some say, an astoundingly high number of Sarasota County residents decided to forgo voting in the high-profile race.

On Tuesday, as state election officials ran a mock election to test the machines for defects, there were no clear answers. By evening, as clerical workers input votes, no major problems were reported with the machines, but the review will continue through the week.

"Our analysis of the results shows that something went very wrong," said Kendall Coffey, a lawyer for Buchanan's challenger, Christine Jennings. He played down the significance of the tests, saying they did not faithfully replicate the voting because the state clerical workers were presumably more adept at the machinery than voters in general would be.

Hayden Dempsey, a lawyer for Buchanan, said, "There is nothing wrong with the machines, as these tests show."

The essence of the dispute arises from the fact that once all the votes were counted in the Nov. 7 election, a troubling anomaly appeared in the tally. More than 18,000 people who had voted in other contests did not have selections recorded in the congressional race.

The phenomenon of voters casting ballots without making selections in every race is known as "undervoting," and it happens in virtually every big election, particularly in contests for lesser-known offices that some voters ignore.

But the magnitude of the undervoting in the BuchananJennings race was startling -- about 15 percent of those who cast ballots in Sarasota. By contrast, it was about 2.5 percent among voters in other counties.

Jennings has filed a lawsuit alleging that thousands of Sarasota County votes were not counted because of "the pervasive malfunctioning of electronic voting machines." The county tilts in her favor.

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