LOS ANGELES - A Federal Court today issued a key decision in Common Cause v. Jones, California's voting rights case, one of four cases filed across the country challenging voting practices and standards in the wake of the November 2000 election. The case, filed on April 17, 2000, challenges the use of the antiquated and inaccurate pre-scored punch card voting machines in nine California counties, alleging that their use infringes on the voting rights of those counties' residents.
"The right to vote is the foundation of our democracy," said Dan Tokaji, staff attorney at the ACLU of Southern California. "The state has a constitutional duty not to allow that foundation to crumble, as it has in nine counties here in California."
The Court's decision today allows the case to proceed and rules that the facts alleged, if proven, would show a violation of equal protection. It signals strongly that the civil rights and labor groups that filed the case stand a good chance of prevailing. The Secretary of State's attorneys filed a motion for judgment on pleadings earlier this month, arguing that even if the facts in the case were true, the case should be dismissed on legal grounds. They argued that individual counties alone and not the Secretary of State are the only appropriate defendants. The judge in the case, the Hon. Stephen V. Wilson, did not agree.
"Plaintiff's choice of the secretary of state as a defendant is appropriate," wrote Judge Wilson. "Plaintiff claims that the denial of the right to vote arises from the collective choices of voting system by various counties. No choice by any single county is the source of the problem. Hence the only way to address the problem is to change the provision which allows counties to choose voting systems of widely disparate quality."
Judge Wilson also dismissed as "inapposite" the defendant's effort to apply a restricted Voting Rights Act legal test related to redistricting.
"Today's ruling makes clear that the buck stops with the Secretary of State," said Tokaji. "Secretary Jones' office cannot evade responsibility for the massive voting rights violations occurring in California. The facts in the case are clear and are a matter of public record. People using pre-scored punch card voting machines don't have an equal chance of having their vote counted - and African American and Latino voters are much more likely to live in counties that have not upgraded from these unreliable machines."
The ACLU affiliates of Southern California, San Diego, and Northern California filed the lawsuit on behalf of Common Cause, the Southern Christian Leadership Council, the AFL-CIO, and the Southwestern Voter Registration and Education Project. The law firms Munger, Tolles & Olson and Altshuler, Berzon, Nussbaum, Rubin & Demain, and University of Michigan Law Professor Evan Caminker are acting as co-counsel in the case.