Saturday, December 02, 2006

Congress to look at voting problems

Congress to look at voting problems
By Jeremy Wallace

Sarasota's voting controversy has given new life to election reform advocates in Congress, prompting the incoming leader of the House to make the issue a top priority for the new year and triggering hearings in the U.S. Senate.

More than being just a battle over who won the 13th Congressional District, officials on Capitol Hill say what happened in Sarasota has wider implications for the nation, giving a more substantive edge to what previously was mostly a theoretical debate over the reliability of touchscreen voting machines.

"What happened in Sarasota really does highlight the issue," said Howard Gantman, communications director for U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein, a Democrat from California who is already vowing to hold hearings on the voting issues early in 2007.

With Democrats winning control of the House and Senate this year, Feinstein is in line to become the chairwoman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, which has jurisdiction over federal election regulations.

Gantman said he is certain Sarasota officials will be called in to testify.

Feinstein also intends to re-introduce legislation in the new year to require all voting systems to have verifiable paper trails, Gantman said.

In the House, two members have called for new legislation mandating paper trails and a spokesman for incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the issue is high on her agenda for the new Congress. Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said what happened in Sarasota underscores why the need for paper trails will be a priority for the speaker-elect.

The national attention on the voting machines and the upcoming hearings on the matter are critical if the public is to be reassured that the machines can be trusted for the 2008 presidential elections, said Larry Sabato, Director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Congress needs to find out exactly what happened to the 18,000 undervotes in the 13th District race between Republican Vern Buchanan and Democrat Christine Jennings. Buchanan was certified the winner by 369 votes, but the unusually high undervote has prompted Jennings to challenge the results in court.

"We need to know what happened to those 18,000 votes," Sabato said.

But while Democrats are pushing for reforms, it doesn't mean they are anxious to inject themselves into the legal dispute between Jennings and Buchanan.

Federal law gives Pelosi, as House Speaker, the power to seat Jennings over Buchanan, citing the disputed election. But political experts say such a move would be toxic politically for her relationship with the GOP.

When Democrats sat a Democrat over a Republican in a disputed election in the early 1980s, the bad will from the move lingered for years afterward and made it hard for the parties to work on anything, said former U.S. Rep. Bill Paxon, R-N.Y.

Sabato said he doubts Pelosi would want to start the Democrats' first week in power in a dozen years in such a partisan way.

Pelosi's spokesman said the California Democrat is watching the legal process in Sarasota, but isn't prepared to comment further on what she will do on Jan. 4, the first day of the new Congress.

Although Sen. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, was a supporter of Jennings, his staff says the issue is bigger than who won the Jennings-Buchanan contest. Nelson has already signed on to help Feinstein and has offered to testify before her committee when it revs up in early 2006.

"There is a broader issue here," said Bryan Gulley, a Nelson spokesman. "There were 18,000 undervotes. How can this be? What needs to be done to make sure that it doesn't happen again."

Republicans aren't dismissing the call for reform outright even though they are fighting for Buchanan to hold the seat in Congress. U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Florida, is willing to "take a look" at the reform measures, but isn't ready to commit one way or the other, said his spokesman, Ken Lundberg.

Even before election day, Feinstein was trying to bring attention to the problems with touchscreen voting. Based partly on some of the early problems that were reported in Sarasota during early voting and a handful of other states, Feinstein put out a statement to the media warning of bigger problems to come.

"It is imperative that Congress does everything it can to help ensure that votes cast by American citizens are recorded accurately," Feinstein said in a statement on Oct. 27, the end of the first week of early voting in Florida.

Sarasota could prove to be the "canary in the mineshaft," for the nation, Sabato said.

He also said if investigators can pin down what happened with the undervote it will help reassure voters who will still be using the machines in some counties and around the nation in 2008 if Congress can't act fast enough.