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Published: Friday, 4/21/2006

Punch-card ballots discriminate, courts rules


COLUMBUS Ohio's continued use of punch-card ballots like those called into question after the 2000 presidential election in Florida discriminates against African Americans whose votes are less likely to be counted, a federal appeals court ruled this morning.

The 2-1 ruling by the Cincinnati-based Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals may soon be moot since, as of the May 2 primary election, no voter in Ohio should be casting a punch-card ballot.

"Hopefully, the state will do this year what the 6th Circuit is telling them, which is, in effect, to get rid of its punch-card and central-count optical-scan systems,'' said Dan Tokaji, an Ohio State University law professor. He argued the case on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and plaintiff voters from Sandusky, Hamilton, Montgomery, and Summit counties.

"Every year for the past three years, the state has said it would replace those systems,'' he said. "Every year, the state has said one thing and done another. I hate to sound like Thomas, but I'll believe it when I see it.''

Last November, half of Ohio's 88 counties were converted to modern voting machinery-either computerized touch-screen or precinct-count optical-scan devices.

The conversion is expected to be complete with the other 44 counties on May 2, meeting a deadline set by the federal Help America Vote Act. HAVA was enacted in the wake of the 2000 presidential election that made terms like "hanging chad'' part of American lexicon.

During the 2000 presidential election in Ohio, 69 counties were using punch cards.

"The era of the punch card in Ohio is over,'' said James Lee, spokesman for Secretary of State Ken Blackwell. "We are keeping in compliance with HAVA, which requires states to move away from antiquated voting by the first federal election of 2006, which is the primary.''

The 6th Circuit overturned the U.S. District Court decision out of Akron that had favored the state, which, in part, cited cost as a reason that it hadn't acted more quickly.

The ACLU had maintained that inner-city precincts containing larger numbers of African American voters were more likely to still be using punch-cards in 2002, two years after the election in Florida showed that votes cast on punch-cards were more likely to be discarded because of under- or over-voting.

"The continued certification of this technology by the Secretary of State does not provide the minimal adequate procedural safeguards to prevent the unconstitutional dilution of votes based on where a voter resides,'' reads the 6th Circuit's majority opinion. "Unequal treatment and unfairness are perpetrated by allowing this technology to remain certified and the state's reasons for maintaining this disparate system are far from compelling.''

Read more in later editions of The Blade and toledoblade.com.

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