WASHINGTON - It's not that Christine Jennings has given up on sliding into Katherine Harris's old seat in the new Congress: "I earned it, I deserve it, and I want to be seated.'' But, she says slowly, "I am not confident.''
And who would be, stuck in a Holiday Inn near the Capitol, where the Republican she ran against, Vern Buchanan, is busy locating the washroom and voting with her party to increase the minimum wage?
Jennings is here to remind her fellow Democrats that while Buchanan has been sworn in provisionally, she is still trying to get a court to order a new election in Florida's 13th Congressional District, based on widespread complaints that electronic voting machines there did not record thousands of votes cast in Sarasota County.
When I met her for lunch, she was coming from a morning of meetings and working the phones at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "I was not too impressed with the Democrats' coffee,'' said her attorney, Kendall Coffey, who was on Al Gore's legal team in 2000. If she does get seated, Jennings promised, she'll try to turn these people on to some Maxwell House. But first, of course, she's got to take on paperless ballots.
Coffey calls her race "the perfect storm case'' in which it could hardly be clearer that "the wrong person is sitting in Congress right now.'' Buchanan and the State of Florida have maintained that nothing went awry on Election Day, and in Buchanan's case, that's understandable.
But as soon as early voting began, Jennings started getting calls from voters who said they had tried repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, to get their touch screen voting machines to record a vote in her race. If the official count is accurate, some 18,000 voters - about 15 percent of all those who turned out on Election Day -- chose not to vote in that one race, which according to the machine tally she lost by 369 votes. The majority of them voted for Democrats in other races, says Coffey, who was already the lawyer for her campaign.
In all four other counties in District 13, which use optical scan voting machines, the percentage of voters who did not cast a ballot in the Jennings-Buchanan race ranged from 2.2 to 5.3 percent, and Sarasota County's paper absentee ballots showed a similar undervote, of 2.5 percent.
Still, now that a Florida judge has denied Jennings's legal team access to the voting machines, it's hard to imagine how she can prove they malfunctioned. An editorial earlier this week in the Tallahassee Democrat blasted the judge in the case: "It was profoundly disappointing when Circuit Judge William L. Gary issued a terse ruling saying, in effect, that the business rights of a voting machine company to protect its trade secrets outrank the interests of Florida voters. But voters ought to be able to trust that their choices are properly recorded on whatever equipment they're given to vote on. The judge called her case "conjecture," which suggests conjecture on his part - and no curiosity whatever about whether the voters of Sarasota County are really so indifferent or inept as to vote diligently in all races but this one high-profile congressional race. It defies logic.''
Increasingly, of course, voters don't trust that their vote counts -- or is counted. And it's voter confidence that Jennings says she worries about most.
She's 60 and retired from the banking industry, having worked her way up from teller to bank president. "When I was much younger,'' the daughter of a steel mill worker in Ohio, "I would never have believed that this could happen,'' she says, smoothing the cloth on the table in front of her. "I was too idealistic.''
She is appealing the ruling and has also filed a complaint in Congress, which has full authority to order the manufacturer, Election Systems & Software, to provide access to its machines. California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the new chair of the Rules and Administration Committee that oversees federal elections, has cited her race as a prime example of why she plans to make election reform a top priority, and will schedule hearings on the reliability of touch screen voting machines.
Meanwhile, Jennings remains in campaign mode without the adrenaline, which might explain the plug for Maxwell House: "Those people with the Sarasota Alliance for Fair Elections? I used to pat them on the back at Democratic meetings, but I had no idea. The vote is the great equalizer in this country - and when we've lost that, we've really lost something.''