Republican Vern Buchanan might be the official winner in a messy Sarasota-area congressional race, but Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean says the Democratic-controlled Congress should not seat Buchanan without another election.
"Absolutely not,'' Dean said in a taped Political Connections interview scheduled to air Sunday on Bay News 9. "You cannot seat someone if you don't have an election that's valid.
"This election is not valid. There are 18,000 people who may have voted, and we don't know what happened to their votes," Dean said. "You can bet that if the Republicans were 500 votes short they'd be calling for a new election, and they'd be right."
On Wednesday, Democrat Christine Jennings said she will ask the U.S. House to take the extreme measure of conducting its own investigation into the election.
Though Jennings has filed a lawsuit asking for a revote, a little-known provision in the U.S. Constitution gives the House the final decision on who sits in its chamber.
Her decision could set the stage for a volatile political showdown at the start of the new Democrat-led Congress. Though Democratic leaders, include incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, say all options are on the table, others privately say they hope to avoid the partisan warfare.
"She's monitoring the situation very closely,'' Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said. "... We'll certainly be evaluating our options."
Jennings has been in Washington drumming up support since Monday. She has met with House members and staffers for the House Administration Committee, which would be responsible for the investigation.
"I can't imagine anyone in government, regardless of party, that's not concerned with what happened,'' Jennings said.
Buchanan led Jennings by a few hundred votes on Election Day and in subsequent recounts. But Jennings is challenging the result because touch screen voting machines in Sarasota County recorded that more than 18,000 people, or 13 percent of all voters, did not vote for either candidate, a rate much higher than in other counties in the district.
"We feel that Christine Jennings is putting her own interests above those of the 13th District,'' Buchanan spokeswoman Sally Tibbetts said. "It's unfortunate."
Jennings filed suit in Leon County asking for a new vote and for her experts to be able to examine the voting machine's hardware, but it's unclear how long it might take for that legal case to be resolved.
She has until Dec. 20 to file her request asking for a House investigation, which usually takes a few weeks to several months. Traditionally, the committee waits until all pending lawsuits are resolved before it launches its own inquiry.
Since 1993, about 105 such cases have been sent to committee, but only a handful have made it to a full House vote.
Usually the committee dismisses the case, though it could recommend to the full House that it order a new recount or new vote. The House also could simply refuse to seat the presumed winner, leaving the seat vacant or filling it with someone else.
The House plans to swear in Buchanan, along with other new members, on Jan. 4, according to House Administration Committee spokeswoman Salley Collins. The House could unseat him later, if it chose.
But members and political observers say either party would be reluctant to take up the case.
"I think there would be a huge pushback in terms of the American people,'' said Rep. Tom Feeney, an Orlando area Republican. "I think that the consequences of that would be severe for the Democratic leadership."
Rep. Jim Davis, a departing Tampa Democrat, said that the lawsuit should be resolved first but that, "No one should be afraid to get to the bottom of what happened."
Dean said Jennings is right to keep pressing ahead with her legal challenges of the election:
"You have to fight it all the way,'' he said. "This is an election that's a bad election."
Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)893-8241. Anita Kumar can be reached at email@example.com or (202)463-0576.
See the interview
Dean's full Political Connections interview airs Sunday at 11 a.m. on Bay News 9, and later can be seen at no cost on Ch. 342 (Bay News 9 on demand).