State Ordered to Replace Old Vote Machines


A federal judge in Los Angeles on Wednesday ruled that California has to replace outmoded punch-card voting machines by the 2004 presidential election.

U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson’s decision is the first ruling in the nation requiring the elimination of obsolete voting machines in the aftermath of the controversial 2000 presidential election. Similar suits are pending in a number of other states.

The decision immediately affects nine California counties, including Los Angeles, which have about 8 million registered voters.

Wilson rejected the position of California Secretary of State Bill Jones and several county voting officials who said that they did not have the millions of dollars needed to upgrade their systems and that it was not feasible to make a change until 2005.

The judge issued a one-sentence order and attorneys said they anticipated he would provide a more detailed ruling later. A lawsuit over the machines had been set for trial Feb. 19.


The ruling was hailed by Daniel Tokaji, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which last year filed the lawsuit seeking to compel elimination of the machines.

“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,” Tokaji said. “It does what the secretary of state should have done years ago: upgrade the infrastructure of our democracy by providing a voting system fit for use in the 21st century.”

The ACLU attorney said he hopes that the plaintiffs can now work out a consent decree with Jones that would provide a plan for the transition to newer, high-tech machines.

Jones conceded last September that two types of punch-card voting machines approved for use in California were “obsolete” and needed to be replaced.

However, in December, Jones said that it would “invite disaster” if some of the state’s large counties were required to change systems by the 2004 presidential election.

On Wednesday, Jones, who is running for governor in the Republican primary, said Judge Wilson “has set a deadline that may be impossible for counties to meet with advanced voting technology. Several counties will have to scale back plans to adopt state-of-the art technology to meet the new deadline.”

Jones also said that unless California voters pass Proposition 41--a $200-million bond measure that would provide 3-to-1 matching grants to California counties for the purchase of new election equipment--on March 5, “many counties will be unable to purchase new systems at all.”

State May Appeal or Seek a Stay

Jones spokesman Alfie Charles said the secretary of state would decide whether to appeal the ruling after consulting with county voting officials. Other political sources said they believe that Jones will ask for a stay of the ruling.

Conny McCormack, Los Angeles County’s registrar-recorder, predicted that “the ruling will throw our Los Angeles County election system into chaos.”

“Requiring us to procure, test and install a new system in less than two years precludes us from replacing punch cards with modern touch screens because there are no funds currently available from the federal, state or county government to do so,” McCormack said.

She said attempting to make a transition more rapidly than is feasible could lead to more tabulating errors in the next election.

“The ultimate irony is this would be the exact opposite outcome of that sought by the plaintiffs,” McCormack said.

But Tokaji said evidence developed in the lawsuit, Common Cause vs. Jones, “shows that the nine affected California counties can easily upgrade their systems” in time for the 2004 presidential election.

Los Angeles is the largest of the nine California counties that use the punch-card machines.

In the November 2000 presidential election, 53.4% of California voters, including those in Los Angeles County, used machines for “pre-scored” punch cards, similar to those that created some of the problems with hanging and “pregnant” chads in Florida. Ballots cast using those machines accounted for 74.8% of all ballots that did not register a vote for president in California.

The error rate for those machines was more than double that of any other system used in the state and three times as high as in Riverside County, which used high-tech touch-screen machines, according to the suit filed last April by the ACLU.

The suit alleged that the wide variety of voting machines used in California resulted in sharply disparate levels of accuracy, with the consequence that a disproportionate number of votes are not counted in some counties--including Los Angeles.

Moreover, the suit, filed on behalf of five nonprofit groups and eight voters, asserted that “a disproportionate number of African American, Latino and Asian American voters do not have their votes counted at all.”

Officials Admit There Are Problems

Since the suit was filed, voting officials throughout the state have acknowledged there are problems with the punch-card machines and said they should be replaced, but have expressed reservations about how fast change can be made, primarily due to a lack of funds.

McCormack said it would cost $90 million to $100 million to implement a touch-screen voting system in Los Angeles County. She said there are only four companies in California certified to make the machines.

“It is incredibly difficult,” she said, to make a machine with the seven languages now used in California elections--English, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Tagalog.

She said that if Proposition 41 passes, the county might get about $75 million from the state. However, she said that the county would still have to pay a quarter of the project’s costs, and that she had no idea where that $25 million would come from.

McCormack said that when the county issued a request for proposals seeking bidders to make a limited number of such machines for an experiment in 2000, it drew only two bids.

Al Fawcett, director of administrative services for the Sacramento County registrar of voters, also said that it would be difficult for that county to modernize its system in time for the next presidential election.

“We are looking at a cost of $20 million to $30 million,” Fawcett said. “There is no money and none on the horizon.”

In addition to Los Angeles and Sacramento counties, the outmoded systems are in use in Alameda, Mendocino, San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Clara, Shasta and Solano counties.

In December, the House of Representatives passed a bill which allocates $2.65 billion over three years to improve voting technology, education and training. A bill pending in the U.S. Senate would give the states $3.4 billion over five years for the same purpose.

In addition to Common Cause, the AFL-CIO, the Chicano Federation of San Diego County, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Southwest Voter Registration Project were plaintiffs in the suit.