A federal judge has issued a tentative ruling that deals a blow to four counties -- including Riverside and San Bernardino -- that challenged the state's temporary ban on electronic voting machines.
If made final today, the ruling by U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper would deny a restraining order sought by the counties and several disabled-rights groups to prevent Secretary of State Kevin Shelley's ban from taking effect. The ruling would not stop the case from going to trial.
In April, Shelley cited questions about the performance of electronic voting systems when he ruled that the machines could not be used in the November election. Shelley ruled that 14 counties must find alternative voting systems or meet certain security requirements before they may offer electronic voting.
Cooper, in her tentative ruling, said she does not believe it is likely that the counties filing suit -- which also include Kern and Plumas -- will be able to prove if the case goes to trial that the ban violates the Americans With Disabilities Act, Help America Vote Act or the state elections code. Rather, she said, the secretary's ruling was "designed to protect the voting rights of the state's citizens."
Advocates for the physically disabled contend that the electronic voting machines are important because they allow them to vote independently and without the assistance of family or poll workers. Blind voters, for instance, can listen to recordings of the choices on the ballot and make their selections without assistance.
Mischelle Townsend, registrar of voters in Riverside County, said she was disappointed to learn about Cooper's tentative decision but is holding out hope that the judge will rule in the counties' favor today.
"It's something I wasn't expecting, obviously," Townsend said. "We thought the hearing and the opportunity for oral arguments would be conducted first. We'll just have to evaluate our options depending upon what the judge's final ruling is."
Townsend said she believes it will be extremely difficult for Riverside election officials to meet Shelley's requirements before using electronic voting machines in November. The secretary has required counties that want to use the machines to offer voters the option of voting on paper ballots, both to ease voter confidence and as a backup in case the machines fail to operate on election day.
That would be a problem, Townsend said, because the county does not have enough machines to tabulate paper ballots.
Five California counties -- Orange, Santa Clara, Merced, Tehama and Shasta -- have already agreed to follow the new requirements and have been approved to use their machines in November.