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Election controversy hits Florida, again

Sarasota recount is complicated by electronic voting systems. One solution: Bring back paper.

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The Sunshine State is once again the scene of a messy election controversy, and residents of Sarasota, an affluent beachside community, aren't the least bit amused.

More than a month after polls closed, the certified loser for the congressional seat is refusing to concede, given an extraordinary wave of ballots with no vote cast in that race and a margin of victory as skimpy as a bikini.

But determining just what went wrong, if anything, has proved difficult given the voting machines involved: touch-screen computers with no printout for voters to confirm. The problems roiling Florida's 13th Congressional District may be one reason that a federal advisory board on Tuesday recommended that the next generation of electronic voting machines be "software independent." In essence, that means creating an independent auditing trail.

Thus, six years after a messy presidential election forced Florida and many states to spend millions of dollars to bring in electronic voting systems, an influential elections panel is urging better-designed systems that may bring back an element of paper. The recommendations will inform new guidelines drawn up in 2007 by the Elections Assistance Commission, of which the panel is a part. Nearly 40 states require that their voting systems meet those guidelines.

"What needs to be figured out [now] is what can we cobble together for a medium-term solution that is not too expensive," says Steven Hertzberg of the Election Science Institute, an election research group based in San Francisco. Then, "we need to innovate in this industry."

So far in Florida's 13th District, there's no evidence that the machines malfunctioned. Sarasota County has already done a machine and a manual recount. Neither significantly budged Republican Vern Buchanan's 369-vote lead over Democrat Christine Jennings. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune has also reviewed every ballot cast.

But suspicions remain because 18,000 ballots, or 13 percent of the votes cast, recorded no votes in the congressional race.

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