Punch cards add to wackiness of Calif. race

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NORWALK, Calif. - Add another wacky element to the carnival-like recall election of Gov. Gray Davis in California: Millions of voters will be voting on punch cards, those of pimpled, dimpled chad fame so discredited by Florida in 2000.

The punch card was outlawed in California, as of March 2004, because of the Florida chaos. But many counties have not had time to switch to new machinery. Rather than risk a headlong rush toward unfamiliar electronic equipment - a hallmark of Florida's later voting disaster in 2002 - nearly half of California's 58 counties, including Los Angeles, are sticking with punch cards for the recall vote.

County officials say that the bad publicity from Florida has made voters much more careful about sweeping off hanging chads, the bits of paper that can cling to ballots, making them hard for machines to read. As a result, they say, punch cards are no longer any less reliable than any other voting method.

The main problem with punch cards is that they can hold a limited number of candidates. Once the number of candidates is determined - more than a hundred had filed papers by yesterday's deadline - officials will have a clearer sense of how clumsy the ballot, and the balloting, might be.

Punch cards have detractors. Davis and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California have sued the state's elections officials, saying that punch cards have higher error rates than other methods and are more prevalent in low-income neighborhoods. Punch cards, they say, are putting the Oct. 7 recall vote on the path to disenfranchising voters.

The governor and others predict that the mechanics of this election - the punch cards, the short time for preparation and a reduction in some counties of the number of polling places - could mean disaster.

"The result is a disparity of voting opportunity that makes Florida's election procedures look almost pristine by comparison," the governor's lawyers wrote in court papers seeking unsuccessfully to delay the vote until March, the month of the presidential primary.

"In isolation, any one of these problems would threaten the state's ability to conduct a fair election," the lawyers wrote. "The combination of these factors, however, ensures that the voters will be denied their rights to equal protection and a fair election under the state and federal constitutions unless this court postpones the recall election until March 2, 2004."

By then, Davis' lawyers say, the counties will have switched to more reliable voting equipment and will not have to reduce the number of polling places.

California's Supreme Court declined to take the governor's case. But the ACLU's case against punch cards is alive in federal court. Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the civil liberties group, said the recall vote was "a fiasco in waiting."

Several county voter registrars said they had concerns, but not those mentioned in the lawsuits. They worry about the short time; the expense (perhaps $70 million) when the state and many counties are facing deficits; and the swarm of candidates, whose names could make a long ballot confusing to voters and hard to count.

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