Almost since the time the votes were tallied here 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 much-disputed 2000 contest between President Bush and former vice president Al Gore.
So far, there are three theories, and lots of political and legal posturing.
Maybe, as scores of voters have claimed, there were glitches with the touch-screen systems and they dropped votes.
Or maybe voters overlooked the congressional race simply 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.
‘Something went very wrong’
On Tuesday, as state election officials here 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, an attorney 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, an attorney 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 Buchanan-Jennings 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.
The broken-machine theory is backed by two voting experts and scores of sworn statements from voters who had trouble with the machines, Coffey said. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune has reported that more than 100 have reported problems with the machines.
But other experts who have analyzed the ballots and the results argue that the culprit might be not the machines but rather voters confused by a poorly designed ballot.
The congressional race appeared on the same screen as the gubernatorial contest, which had a brighter banner and took up more space.
Ted Selker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a director of the CalTech/MIT Voting Technology Project, said that tests in his lab have shown that as many as 60 percent of voters can miss races when they are displayed in such a manner.
If the missing votes were caused by ballot design, that is bad news for the challenger, because it is more difficult under Florida law to challenge an election because of ballot design or voter confusion.
Jennings's legal team has dismissed the idea of a bad ballot.
"I don't see any history to show that, with a highly visible, hotly contested race like this, voters are going to fail to find it on the ballot," Coffey said. "It's just not such an awful ballot design that you can explain the disappearance of 15 percent of the votes."
The final theory, that the missing votes reflect many voters' disgust with the aggressive campaigns, is largely dismissed by many experts. It seems extremely unlikely, they said, that only Sarasota County residents decided not to vote.
Like many here, Joan Tallman, 70, a retired bank vice president, said she was appalled and mystified by the trouble.
"Funky machines? I don't know," she said, shaking her head. "But a lot of those votes didn't count."