LOS ANGELES — A federal judge has ordered California to get rid of its “hanging chad” voting machines by the 2004 elections, more than a year before the deadline the state had set.
U.S. District Judge Stephen V. Wilson made the ruling late Tuesday — a week before a lawsuit filed in April against Secretary of State Bill Jones was set for trial. He ruled based on briefs filed by Jones and plaintiffs including the AFL-CIO and the advocacy group Common Cause.
“California can look forward to a chad-free presidential election in the year 2004,” said Dan Tokaji, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which helped represent the plaintiffs.
But the chief elections official for Los Angeles County called the decision “catastrophic,” saying that two years isn’t enough time to implement a more accurate system.
“It’s going to throw the election system in LA County into chaos,” said Conny B. McCormack, the county’s registrar-recorder and county clerk. “The ultimate irony is that the outcome is going to be exactly the opposite of what the plaintiffs are seeking.”
Tokaji said the ruling was the first requiring the replacement of voting systems by 2004 since the 2000 presidential election, when disputed punch-card ballots in Florida left the winner undeclared for weeks.
Jones, who helped put on next month’s state ballot a $200 million bond for new election equipment, had ordered all Votomatic and Pollstar punch-card systems to be replaced by July 2005. The systems are used in nine of California’s 58 counties: Alameda, Los Angeles, Mendocino, Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Clara, Shasta and Solano.
Jones spokesman Alfie Charles said July 2005 is the earliest counties can buy equipment for touch-screen voting and get it running.
“The date selected by the judge may prevent counties from obtaining the best equipment possible,” Charles said.
But Tokaji said Jones isn’t requiring counties to switch to touch-screen balloting, and that other, quicker-to-implement options also would be better than punch-card ballots. “The priority here is to get rid of the worst offenders,” he said.
Los Angeles County elections officials used touch-screen voting in a pilot project in November 2000, and want to expand its use in the November 2002 elections, McCormack said.
But she added that the county is nowhere close to buying, testing and setting up the 30,000 touch-screen monitors it would need to rely on in an election. About 2.7 million people voted in the county in November, more than in each of 41 states, McCormack said.
Using another paper-based system such as optical scanners as an interim measure could cause more error than punch-card balloting because voters won’t be used to them, McCormack said.
She said the county, which must print ballots in 3,184 different local combinations and seven languages for primary elections next month, would be better off switching to a paperless system.
“The plaintiffs are worried we’re going to be Florida, but we weren’t Florida, and we haven’t been for 34 years” — the length of time the county has relied on the punch-card voting system, McCormack said.
She added that counties need to be alloted time to deal with problems that likely will arise during the switch. For instance, election officials in Broward County, Fla., this week said that more than two-thirds of their first shipment of 101 touch screen machines were defective.
Switching to a touch-screen system would cost $90 million to $100 million for Los Angeles County alone, McCormack said. The state bond would cover some of the expense if voters approve it, and Congress is working on appropriating money for new elections equipment.