The number of punch-card votes not counted because of old or malfunctioning equipment may be small but could affect a close election like the one expected Nov. 2, a civil rights lawyer said Monday in the first punch-card system challenge to go to trial.

The American Civil Liberties Union (search) of Ohio will show that the state's punch-card machines are not uniform and in several counties they are antiquated and don't allow voters to correct mistakes, ACLU attorney Paul Mokey (search) said in his opening statement in U.S. District Court.

He compared two Ohio counties, Hamilton (Cincinnati) and Franklin (Columbus), which he said had similar populations and racial demographics but different equipment.

Hamilton County in 2000 had aging punch-card machines and Franklin had newer electronic equipment. Franklin reported zero overvotes for president, in which someone voted for two candidates for president, but in Hamilton there were 2,916 overvotes that were disallowed.

"In a close election such as that is predicted in Ohio this fall, those 2,916 votes could make the difference," Mokey said.

He also said expert witnesses would testify that research shows that the votes of blacks in certain Ohio counties are disproportionately undercounted and those votes are on punch-card machines.

Rich Coglianese, an attorney defending the state, said in his opening statement that the state had not intentionally denied anyone the right to vote.

"We have a good system," he said. "Secretary of State (Kenneth) Blackwell is in the process of making it an even better system."

He said the state's experts would present more complete research that shows that there is no discrimination based on voting equipment in Ohio counties.

The trial, expected to last a week, is the first of its kind in the nation, voting experts say. Lawsuits filed by the ACLU against several other states have been settled with agreements that punch-card ballots will be replaced.

The ACLU wants all punch-card ballots in the state removed before November. But even a court victory would be unlikely to bring change before this year's presidential election because there would be too little time to make a conversion.

Ohio is one of a handful of states that still use mostly punch-cards. The ballots are used in 69 of Ohio's 88 counties, representing nearly 73 percent of registered voters. In the 2000 presidential election, nearly 94,000 Ohioans had their ballots rejected.

Ohio officials say they are working as fast as it can to replace punch-cards — but problems with electronic voting technology have stalled the effort.

Punch-card balloting gained notoriety during the 2000 presidential election in Florida, where problems with the ballots led to 36 days of legal wrangling and recounts, until George W. Bush was declared the winner of the state, and thus the White House, by just 537 votes.

Bush won Ohio by a larger margin, but in a poll last week of Ohio voters by the American Research Group, he was tied with presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry.

The Florida fiasco inspired Congress to appropriate $3.9 billion for an overhaul of the nation's voting systems, one that was to be fueled by technology promised by companies such as Ohio's Diebold Inc.

Blackwell led Ohio's efforts to get $133 million from that program, but he said earlier this month that three counties that were considering Diebold equipment cannot switch by November because tests revealed security problems.

Blackwell spokesman Carlo LoParo said Friday the agency hopes to have electronic voting that meets security requirements in place by 2005.