ACLU Files CA Voting Rights Lawsuit, Saying Punch Cards Belong in Junkyard, Not Voting Booth

April 16, 2001 12:00 am

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LOS ANGELES – The American Civil Liberties Union affiliates of Northern California, San Diego and Southern California joined forces today to challenge the state’s flawed and discriminatory voting system.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court, focuses on the disparities between counties using the now-notorious pre-scored punch card voting systems and those using other, more reliable systems.

“In California, every vote doesn’t count, especially the votes of African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans,” said Mark Rosenbaum, Legal Director of the ACLU of Southern California.

“”The punch-card voting machines used in the November 2000 election belong in junkyards, not voting booths,”” he added. “”The estimated eight and a half million California voters in counties using punch-card machines have a better chance of having their preferences recorded on a lottery ticket than on an election ballot.””

Rosenbaum explained that pre-scored punch card machines are known to produce disproportionately high rates of two types of errors: under-voting and over-voting. In over-voting, the machine reads more than one vote, thus disqualifying the vote; in under-voting, the machine fails to read any vote.

In legal papers, the ACLU said that over 5.9 million Californians – 53.4 percent of voters statewide – voted in the November 2000 election using a pre-scored punch card system, and over 132,000 of those votes were not counted or were counted inaccurately.

Significantly, African American and Latino voters are much more likely to reside in one of the pre-scored-punch-card-using counties. According to one recent study, only 58.3 percent of white voters resided in counties using the substandard punch card systems, whereas 80.8 percent of African American voters and 66.6 percent of Latino voters reside in those counties.

“Our democracy has been left hanging by a chad,” said Dan Tokaji, staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California. “Under our Constitution, every vote should be counted, regardless of where a person lives or the color of his or her skin. Unfortunately, that is not true in California today, thanks to outdated equipment which is the voting equivalent of a horse and buggy. Unless the state takes action, California could become the next Florida.”

The combined error rate for those counties using the pre-scored punch card averaged 2.23 percent – more than twice the error rate for any other type of machine or system used in other California counties, and nearly four times the error rate of Riverside County’s touch-screen voting machines. The error rate in Los Angeles County was 2.7%, or four-and-a-half times the rate for Riverside, at .59 percent. The number of overvotes and undervotes in Los Angeles county alone – 72,000 – is greater than the entire number of registered voters in 26 California counties, the ACLU said.

Nine California counties use one of two punch card systems, the Votomatic — widely used in Florida — and the Pollstar. African American and Latino voters are much more likely to reside in one of the pre-scored-punch-card-using counties.

“”We tell our community, ‘Su voto es su voz,’ or ‘Your vote is your voice,'”” said Antonio Gonzalez, President of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, one of the groups participating in the case. “”But California, by relying on an inadequate system, blocks out the legitimate voices of thousands of voters, voters who have taken the trouble to fulfill their civic duties.””

Other organizations acting as plaintiffs in this lawsuit include the AFL-CIO, Common Cause, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Chicano Federation of San Diego County.

The law firms Munger, Tolles & Olson and Altshuler, Berzon, Nussbaum, Rubin & Demain, along with University of Michigan Law Professor Evan Caminker, join the ACLU as co-counsel in the case.

The ACLU’s Tokaji noted that the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment in Bush v. Gore, its December 12, 2000 decision halting the manual recount of votes in Florida, paved the way for these challenges.

“”We should take the Supreme Court at its word,” said Tokaji. “In Bush v. Gore, the Court ruled that without uniformity in recounts, some voters are disenfranchised and denied equal protection under the law. Our case relies on the same principle.””

Today’s lawsuit is the fourth such case that the ACLU has filed since the November 2000 election; the organization filed suits in Florida, Georgia, and Illinois earlier this year. In all four cases, the ACLU targets the discrepancies created by the use of the pre-scored punch card system in some areas and better systems in other areas.

The ACLU complaint in the California case is at

For more information on ACLU voting rights challenges, go to

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