Thursday, February 14, 2002
Judge Orders Punch-Card Voting Be Replaced by 2004 General Election
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
Punch-card voting systems must be replaced within nine southern California counties in time for the 2004 presidential elections, a federal district judge ruled yesterday.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson of the Central District of California is the first since the 2000 Florida presidential debacle to to require that outdated voting machines be replaced by the next presidential election, according to the ACLU, which brought the suit.
“This landmark decision means that by 2004, `hanging chad’ machines will go the way of black-and-white TVs, eight-track tapes and the Edsel,” ACLU staff attorney Dan Tokaji said.
More than 8.4 million California voters can “go to the polls in 2004 with confidence that their votes will actually be counted,” he said.
In the suit filed last April 17, citizen groups claimed Secretary of State Bill Jones, as California’s chief election officer, violated the federal constitutional voting rights of his constituents by allowing outdated punch-card machines to be used in some areas and touch-screen systems in others.
The plaintiffs alleged that outdated voting machines, such as the chad-plagued punch card variety, cause “undercounts” and are prevalent in counties with more minorities.
The plaintiffs included Common Cause, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles, Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, Chicano Federation of San Diego County and American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.
They wanted Jones to decertify Votomatic-style punch card machines—the same kind that were used in Florida, where the Legislature has since voted to replace those systems with a technology in which voters mark choices with a pencil on cards that are then read by a machine.
The Votomatic-type machines have an error rate more than twice as high as any other system used in California, resulting in the disenfranchisement of thousands of California citizens, the plaintiffs alleged.
In the November 2000 election, Los Angeles County, for example, had an error rate more than four and a half times that of Riverside County, which used modern touch screen machines, according to the plaintiffs.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said Wilson’s decision “is an important first step to making sure that American citizens can have faith in our voting system again.”
On Sept. 14, the Legislature approved the Democracy Fund to pay for new voting systems. Four days later, Jones declared the punch card system decertified, effective no later than 2006 to give counties years to amass the money the new gear will cost.
In December, Jones set a replacement date of July 1, 2005, decertifying the Votamatic and PollStar punch card systems as of that date.
The plaintiffs claim the nine counties—Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, San Bernardino, Riverside, San Diego, and Imperial—can easily upgrade their systems in time for the 2004 presidential election.
But Jones, in a statement issued after the ruling, expressed fears that some counties might not be able to comply because of costs.
“Unfortunately, the shortened timeframe outlined by the judge will jeopardize the smooth conduct of elections and will prevent taxpayers from getting the best bang for their buck when counties purchase replacement systems,” the secretary of state said.
Several county elections officials, Jones said, have reported to him that that they could not implement the touch-screen technology—which Riverside used for the first time two years ago—prior to 2005. The November 2004 deadline set by Wilson will force those counties to spend millions of dollars on temporary systems or to abandon touch-screen altogether, Jones predicted.
Jones added that some counties may not be able to comply at all if Proposition 41 loses on March 5. That measure, which passed the Legislature overwhelmingly and is supported by Jones, would authorize the state to incur bonded debt in order to pay up to 75 percent of the cost of new voting systems.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company