For 12 hours today, state elections officials will try to re-create a slice of Sarasota County's controversial Election Day.
A handful of electronic voting machines will be set up in a mock polling place. Workers, acting as voters, will follow a precise script, selecting candidates using the same ballot actual voters saw and noting any problems they have with the machines recording their votes. Each machine will be videotaped.
The point of the exercise is to try to shed light on the mystery of the nearly 18,000 "undervotes" in the bitter 13th Congressional District race. It's one more step in a multilayered effort to figure out if machines malfunctioned or if those voters simply declined to cast ballots in the contest.
But the audit is not expected to change anyone's mind or bring the residents of District 13 any closer to knowing who their congressman - or congresswoman - will be. Regardless of the results, the state can't order another election; that's up to the courts.
And the candidate on the losing side of the election is already questioning the audit process.
Democrat Christine Jennings, who hasn't conceded to Republican Vern Buchanan despite two state-mandated recounts that upheld his 369-vote lead, says the audit isn't independent. Jennings, who has filed a lawsuit seeking a new election, says she'll conduct some kind of audit on her own.
"It's like having Ford employees doing all the test driving of the Taurus to see what went wrong," said Jennings' attorney, Kendall Coffey, of the state's plans to have its employees conduct the mock voting.
Because the state approved the type of equipment used in the election, it has an interest in seeing the audit reveal no unusual problems, Coffey said.
Buchanan says he welcomes the audit. The concerns raised by the Jennings camp are a distraction intended to bolster its legal case, a Buchanan representative said Monday.
"It's a pre-emptive strike because they know the results will be in our favor," said Buchanan lawyer Hayden Dempsey.
The Orlando Sentinel has reported that the voters who registered no choice in the congressional election solidly backed Democratic candidates in all five of Florida's statewide races. The trend, which continues up the ticket to the race for governor and U.S. Senate, suggests that if votes were truly cast and lost, they were votes that likely cost Jennings the election.
State officials have lavished painstaking detail on today's audit: Each of the five machines being tested has its own script, which, like a screenplay adaptation of a book, was written based on actual voting data. A team of 10 state employees will "vote" from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., just like on Election Day.
Today's audit uses machines that were set up for the Nov. 7 election but not used. The process will be repeated again on Friday - after the Nov. 30 deadline to challenge election results has passed - using machines in play during the election.
In selecting the used machines for Friday's audit, state officials consulted with both Jennings and Buchanan, elections spokeswoman Jenny Nash said. Buchanan told the state to select two machines at random, while Jennings identified two precincts from which she wanted two machines taken, Nash said. The state picked the last machine.
State officials will spend next week analyzing the audit results. If they reveal a machine malfunction, then the state will begin looking at the software of the machines, Nash said. The software is considered so proprietary that not even the county officials who purchased the equipment have access to it.
In any event, Coffey plans to ask for a more thorough review of the machines. But he admits he may have a tough time getting the machine manufacturer, Elections Systems & Software, to give up its software.
"I think there's going to be a fight," Coffey said.
Nash said the state decided to limit the audit to five machines because of the time-consuming logistics of the script writing and the videotaping.
Alisa Ulferts can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2379.