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Judge blocks disabled-voters' lawsuit

By JAMES MILLER    Daytona Beach News-Journal   July 22, 2005

A federal judge refused Thursday to force Volusia County to provide touch-screen voting machines for the disabled by October, a move hailed as a victory for supporters of paper ballots.

Judge John Antoon II in Orlando rejected the National Federation of the Blind's call for an emergency order forcing the county to provide machines accessible to voters with disabilities for the Oct. 11 municipal primaries.

While the lawsuit doesn't call specifically for touch screens, the machines are the only ones certified so far by the state as disabled-accessible. But many activists oppose them because they don't use paper ballots. The machines would be used alongside the county's current paper ballot system.

County Chairman Frank Bruno, who has twice voted against the touch screens, hailed a victory for all Volusia County voters.

But a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind called it "a temporary setback" and said an emergency appeal was being filed.

"We think the ruling is completely wrong, and we're extremely disappointed," said Jim Gashel, the federation's executive director for strategic initiatives. "We're not disappointed enough to the matter."

In his order denying a preliminary injunction, Antoon said he could not conclude there was "substantial likelihood" the national association would succeed in its argument that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires "secret and independent" voting. Currently, voters with disabilities are assisted at the polls.

He also rebutted the association's argument that the state's Electronic Voting Systems Act requires the county to purchase disabled-accessible voting machines by the first election after July 1.

He ruled the law simply authorizes the use of electronic voting systems and provides criteria for certifying them if they are purchased.

State Attorney General Charlie Crist and the Florida Division of Elections have interpreted the law in the same way as the national federation.

The case is far from over. A request for a permanent injunction remains before the court, although an attorney representing the county said the case could take a year to go to trial, if at all.

County Chairman Bruno said the ruling gives the county until a federal Jan. 1 deadline to provide disabled-accessible equipment.

Along with some activists, Bruno wants the county to purchase an alternative system the AutoMARK that marks a paper ballot and is meant to be disability-accessible.

The state has not certified the equipment, though Bruno said an AutoMARK representative told him Thursday a testing schedule was being set up.

"(It's) not to say that I don't want to put in place accessible voting for the disabled because I most certainly do want it," Bruno said.

Both Supervisor of Elections Ann McFall and a representative of the Diebold Election Systems, the vendor for both the touch screens McFall wants to buy and the county's current paper ballot system, have challenged whether the AutoMARK can be used with the current system.

AutoMARK supporters have argued the touch screens aren't accessible to all voters with disabilities in the first place.

"This is excellent news for all voters including the disabled who will now have both accessible and verifiable elections in Volusia County," said anti-touch screen activist Susan Pynchon of the Florida Fair Elections Coalition.

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