The postponement of California's recall election because of old punch-card ballots raises pointed questions for many other states, with at least half still using outmoded equipment that critics say treats voters unfairly.
The appellate panel's decision, if upheld by the full appeals court and the U.S. Supreme Court (search), promises to bring back the complaints of disenfranchised voters that dogged the last presidential election -- just in time for the next one.
But in 2004, litigation could be even more widespread.
"It's very basic and very simple. The ways people vote are compromised," said Bertha Lewis, executive director of the New York chapter of ACORN (search), an activist group for poor and moderate-income families.
The ruling in California "has opened the door" to new lawsuits over voting inequities, said Lewis, who hopes to work with the American Civil Liberties Union (search) to craft a common strategy. Lewis' group was among several that sued New York City this summer, alleging tens of thousands of uncounted votes because of problems with lever machines.
A three-judge panel of a federal appeals court postponed the Oct. 7 recall on Monday, unanimously ruling it is unacceptable that six California counties would be using punch-card ballots. Those counties already are under court order to replace punch cards with modern systems such as touch-screen ballots by the March primary.
Punch-card machines, the devices at the heart of the Florida dispute that ultimately sent the 2000 presidential race to the U.S. Supreme Court, are still in use in 26 states, according to the Election Reform Information Project (search).
Efforts are underway to update the nation's equipment, with at least 12 states aiming to replace the punch cards with new machines, using federal funds for the project. Federal law aims for 2004, but gives state until 2006 to make the changes.
Additionally, 17 states rely to some extent on old lever machines -- which, like punch cards, are singled out for upgrades by the federal 2002 Help America Vote Act (search). The act promised $3.9 billion to pay for new equipment and other improvements.
Ongoing efforts in several states have been complicated by a debate over which machines work best. Some say electronic touch-screen machines are the best solution, but a recent study argued that security flaws leave those machines open to hacking and manipulation.
Other studies have found that punch-card ballots and lever machines work fairly well as long as voters are given good instructions on how to use them.
While the public and politicians have lost faith in the older technology, that doesn't mean delaying elections or demanding new equipment will solve the problem of uncounted votes, said Doug Lewis, who works with state and local election officials at The Election Center (search), a nonpartisan group based in Houston. Voter education is essential.
Still, the implication of the California ruling is clear, he said.
"If you follow the logical extension of how the California federal court has ruled, then it would negate any jurisdiction in America being able to use (punch cards) for the same reason," said Lewis. "It would mean every jurisdiction in America that has this equipment has to think about getting rid of them tomorrow."
Voting rights groups followed just that thinking after the 2000 election, bringing lawsuits in several states because some counties or cities used older machines with a history of problems and others used newer technology.
Settlements were reached in Florida, California and Illinois to upgrade old equipment, said Laughlin McDonald, director of the Voting Rights Project of the ACLU. Talks are ongoing in Ohio, he said.
"Every place that these suits have been brought, some change has resulted, because it's so apparent to everyone that punch cards are dinosaur technology," he said.
But the issue remains in many other states.
Supporters of the recall of California Gov. Gray Davis are pursuing an appeal of the three-judge panel before the full 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (search). If the ruling is upheld, an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court would be likely.
"The legal question is -- is it acceptable to have this differing election administration, that we know in this county X percentage of these ballots aren't going to be counted, while in this other county, it won't be that bad?" said Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy in suburban Washington.
"We're sitting on a time bomb here until that's resolved, both legally and politically."