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E-voting woes surface in Florida

Headlines after Tuesday's election tended to categorize reports of electronic voting machine troubles as mere "hiccups." But as it turns out, irregularities in one Florida county could carry far more weight--and are already spawning renewed calls for paper trails on so-called "black box" electronic voting machines.

Democratic U.S. House of Representatives hopeful Christine Jennings has called for a recount after Sarasota County election officials revealed there were more than 18,000 undervotes in the congressional race--that is, ballots that didn't have votes recorded either for Jennings or for her Republican opponent Vern Buchanan.

The number could be highly significant: With fewer than 400 votes separating the two candidates (Buchanan is in the lead), the race to replace Rep. Katherine Harris, who failed to win election to a U.S. Senate seat, is easily one of the closest contests this year.

What Jennings called a "staggeringly high" undercount figure has prompted calls by at least two liberal advocacy groups for an independent investigation for another reason: It means that approximately 1 in 7 voters didn't cast votes in the congressional race.

"Numerous voters in Sarasota County have reported that when the summary screen appeared on some of the county's Election Systems & Software voting machines, no vote had been recorded," the group People for the American Way said in a statement. "Some voters were able to go back and record a vote, but others suspect they were never given a meaningful opportunity to cast a vote in that race."

The Florida Elections Canvassing Commission, of which Republican Gov. Jeb Bush is a member, plans to meet on Monday to discuss whether to go ahead with a recount, the New York Times reported Friday.

But how would a recount work on a machine that lacks a voter-verified paper trail?

One computer scientist interviewed by the Times said there's simply no way to do it, and that's precisely why her tech-savvy colleagues and fair vote advocates have been lobbying for years mandatory voter-vetted receipts. An ES&S representative contacted by CNET did not respond immediately to requests for comment.

In an ironic twist, the county's voters encountered a ballot question on Nov. 7 about whether to scrap the $4.7 million system, purchased in 2001, in favor of an ES&S optical scan system. Although not immune to their own failures, computer scientists say those systems could come in handy when a recount must occur because they involve paper ballots read and tabulated by a computer, SAT-style.