Judge: Punch-Card Ballots Don't Deny Rights

Voting rights are not denied to those who use punch-card ballots (search), a federal judge ruled in the nation's first trial to challenge the system blamed for woes in Florida in the 2000 presidential election.

The American Civil Liberties Union (search) argued that the punch-card system is error-prone and ballots are more likely to go uncounted than votes cast in other ways. The group claimed Ohio violated the voting rights of blacks, who predominantly live in punch-card counties.

U.S. District Judge David D. Dowd Jr. disagreed.

"All voters in a county, regardless of race, use the same voting system to cast a ballot, and no one is denied the opportunity to cast a valid vote because of their race," Dowd said in his ruling Tuesday.

The ACLU in Cleveland did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Punch-card ballots are used in 69 of 88 Ohio counties, representing nearly 73 percent of registered voters. About 92,000 ballots cast in last month's presidential election failed to record a vote for president, most on punch-card systems.

A lawyer representing Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search), who lost Ohio by 119,000 votes to President Bush (search), has asked that representatives of the campaign be allowed to inspect those ballots as part of a recount being done in Ohio.

The recount, which began this week, was requested by two minor presidential candidates. The Kerry campaign supports the recount even though it has acknowledged there are not enough votes to change the outcome.

In a separate action, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and attorney Cliff Arnebeck of the Massachusetts-based Alliance for Democracy have asked the state Supreme Court to reconsider the election results, accusing Bush's campaign of "high-tech vote stealing."

Jackson said the challengers noticed Bush generally received more votes in counties that use optical-scan voting machines and questioned whether the machines were calibrated to record votes for Bush.

The challengers also claim there were disparities in vote totals for Democrats, too few voting machines in Democrat-leaning precincts, organized campaigns directing voters to the wrong polling place and confusion over the counting of provisional ballots by voters whose names did not appear in the records at polling places.

If the court decides to hear the challenge, it can declare a new winner or throw out the results. However, Ohio's electors cast the state's 20 electoral votes for Bush on Monday.

Punch-card balloting gained notoriety during the 2000 presidential election in Florida, where problems with the ballots — such as hanging chads — led to legal wrangling and recounts, until George W. Bush was declared the winner of the state by just 537 votes.

Ohio plans to replace punch-card systems by 2005 with machines that alert voters if they made a mistake. The electronic voting systems were supposed to be in place statewide by the November election, but the $133 million plan stalled because of security questions.