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Judge dismisses suit seeking paper trail for touch-screen machines


Associated Press


MIAMI - The state will not be forced to create a paper record in case of tight races on touch-screen voting machines, a judge ruled Monday in upholding an emergency rule setting standards for electronic voting recounts.

Touch-screen machines "provide sufficient safeguards" of constitutional rights by warning voters if they didn't vote in a race and by allowing a final ballot review, U.S. District Judge James Cohn wrote in a 25-page order.

Also Monday, a federal judge in Jacksonville turned down a request to force Duval County to install four additional early voting sites.

U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, a Boca Raton Democrat, sued to create a paper record for manual recounts in close elections like the contentious 2000 presidential race or an order switching more than half of the state's voters in 15 counties from touch-screens to optical scan voting with paper ballots by 2006.

Wexler said he planned an appeal to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta on the ruling favoring Secretary of State Glenda Hood and Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Theresa LePore.

The judge found no constitutional violation in a touch-screen recount rule issued by the state Oct. 15 to replace one thrown out in August by a state judge.

After hearing three days of testimony last week, Cohn concluded "the preferential method of casting a ballot" would include a paper printout allowing voters to make sure their ions are correct, but he said he was limited to determining "whether the current procedures and standards comport with equal protection."

Wexler called the ruling "a partial victory" but said he disagrees with the judge's conclusion that the voting machines meet the requirement in state law for manual recounts.

"I'm very excited about the fact that the judge endorsed a paper trail as the preferable voting system," Wexler said. He believes the judge was reluctant to make "drastic changes" in voting systems with early voting under way little more than a week before Election Day.

"Gov. (Jeb) Bush successfully ran the clock out on the ability to improve the election process for 2004," Wexler said.

Hood's office said the machines have a successful track record since they were introduced to the state in 2002 following the fallout from magnifying-glass examinations of punch-card ballots in the last presidential election.

"Florida voters should have complete confidence in the voter systems we're using, and for U.S. Rep. Wexler to try to erode the voter confidence or put doubt in the voter's mind does a real disservice to the voters of Florida," Hood spokeswoman Jenny Nash said.

There was no immediate reaction from LePore, whose office phones rang busy.

State legislators ped a requirement to determine voter intent during recounts after the election fiasco four years ago. The current requirement is to determine "voter choice," which the state maintains is whatever is on a touch-screen when a voter presses the final button.

Cohn distinguished between intent and choice, writing that the earlier standard attempted to discern a voter's state of mind after the fact, while the new standard is based on whether a ion was made.

Wexler's attorney, Jeff Liggio, argued the machines have no way to deal with malfunctions or distinguish between voter mistakes and intentional decisions to skip ballot items. The judge said the question of malfunctions was a state issue.

Ron Labasky, an attorney for county election chiefs, claimed in court that Wexler was just trying to find a way to "squeeze one more vote out" and "regress" to the confusion of 2000. Florida was decided by 537 votes, which awarded the election to President Bush after the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in.

In Jacksonville, U.S. District Judge Harvey Schlesinger denied a request from a coalition of unions and black groups to add four early voting sites in Duval County.

Schlesinger said the county's four existing sites, opened just Saturday, are in predominantly black areas and the four new sites would be in "far-flung" parts of the county that do not have as many minorities.

"While opening these sights might be more convenient to all voters in the outlaying areas of Duval County, not opening them does not result in African-American voters being denied 'meaningful access to the political process,' " Schlesinger wrote.

Attorney Ernst Mueller, who represented the county, said he was pleased with the decision.

"It's virtually possible in the remaining days before the early voting finishes on Nov. 1 to open up more early voting centers," he said.

A phone call left after hours with Laura Shores, attorney for the Jacksonville Coalition for Voter Protection, was not immediately returned.

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