Election protection activists are already busy promoting legislative fixes designed to assure that all eligible Americans can vote and get those votes counted in 2008. It’s vital work. But if we are serious about addressing what’s wrong with our electoral system, we must look backward as well–to what happened in Florida’s 13th Congressional District last year.

That contest was “decided” for Republican Vern Buchanan over Democrat Christine Jennings following a recount that put Buchanan up by 369 votes. What the recount did not resolve, however, were questions raised by apparent voting machine malfunctions in Sarasota County, a base of strength for Jennings. Machines manufactured by Election Systems & Software Inc. (ES&S) recorded 18,000 “undervotes”–ballots with votes cast for other positions but not for the House seat–in precincts that tended to favor Jennings.

Republicans claim the dramatic disparity–nearly 13 percent of ballots registered no House vote–can be explained by Floridians’ lack of interest in the Buchanan-Jennings race, despite its being one of the most expensive and closely watched contests of the year. But, argues the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, “while some have speculated that people simply chose not to vote in the District 13 race, many voters say the unusual undervote was caused by badly designed touch-screen ballots, which they say hid the race or made it hard to verify if they had cast their vote.”

Local election officials, along with ES&S representatives, defended the machines and Buchanan’s slim majority through a flawed recount process that cleared the way for the Republican to be seated in January. Two months later, however, it was revealed that Sarasota officials had been informed by ES&S months before the election of serious concerns regarding the response time of the voting machines. Amazingly, those officials decided in secret not to make the recommended repairs or to train poll workers and voters to deal with confusion caused by the machines.

When the memo detailing the machine malfunctions surfaced, Florida’s nine Democratic US House members asked the House Administration Committee, which oversees election disputes, to open an investigation. “That these revelations are coming to light now, through press reports, suggests that the potential for fraud in this election was real, that it was known by the responsible officials and that these officials did nothing about it,” they wrote. “Further, that these reports came to light through press reports strongly suggests that this investigation is far from complete.”

Committee chair Juanita Millender-McDonald, a California Democrat, immediately created a task force to review what went wrong in Florida and how the House should respond. Under the Constitution the House and Senate are responsible for determining whether members have been legitimately elected. It is within the power of the House to declare the seat vacant and force a new vote in the 13th District–a move for which there are precedents, including a 1975 statewide revote of a New Hampshire Senate contest. That’s what Jennings has demanded.

House Republicans, apparently fearful for Buchanan’s chances in a fair election, have sought to delay the task force’s work. But the Democrats shouldn’t be deterred by such tactics or by their own consultants, some of whom quietly suggest that letting Buchanan finish his term would position Jennings to highlight the flawed process and run as a victim in 2008. The principle at stake is too important to allow either party to play politics. If malfunctioning voting machines and irresponsible election officials are allowed to determine who sits in the House, no American will be able to cast a ballot with confidence in 2008.