Fla. man's legal push for voting machine paper trail allowed

Previous state court suit no bar to a federal one, says appeals court ruling

September 28, 2004|By Jeremy Milarsky | Jeremy Milarsky,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - With the presidential election a little more than a month away, a federal appeals court yesterday revived a Democratic congressman's quest to give Florida voters paper receipts for the state's touch-screen voting machines, in case a recount is needed.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta struck down a May decision by U.S. District Judge James Cohn, who had ruled that since Rep. Robert Wexler had already sued elections officials in state court, his case had no place in the federal court system.

A federal judge will now have to decide whether the ATM-style voting machines are constitutional. Wexler represents parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties, where voting irregularities helped tip the 2000 presidential election.

Both counties are using the new voting machines. If Wexler prevails, voting machine technicians would have to work at breakneck speed to install a paper receipt system for 15 counties before Oct. 18, the first day voters can cast early absentee ballots for the Nov. 2 election.

Election officials said it was unlikely they could do so.

"We got less than two weeks right now before early voting starts," said Bill Cowles, president of the Florida Association of Supervisors of Elections. "You can't get a new system in, test it and certify it by that time."

Wexler, who has argued that electronic voting machines with paper receipts would make them more accountable to voters, said yesterday's ruling was a defeat for Gov. Jeb Bush.

"The governor wants to deny us our day in court," said Wexler of Boca Raton. "But the governor lost big time today. Big time."

A spokeswoman for Secretary of State Glenda Hood, a Bush appointee and the state's top elections official, called the ruling "procedural."

"We have full confidence in the elections process that we have in place in the state of Florida," the spokeswoman said.

Shortly after Wexler filed his case, Hood published a rule change immunizing counties using touch-screen machines from the state law requiring hand recounts after close elections. But a lawsuit filed by civil rights groups succeeded in stalling the rule change.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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