U.S. District Judge Alan Gold has denied motions by Secretary of State Katherine Harris to dismiss the suit and by a county elections supervisor for a summary judgment. The judge's order was filed Tuesday.
The lawsuit, which included complaints from the Nov. 7 presidential election, asked the judge to eliminate punch-card ballots used in 25 counties, fix the state's system for purging voter lists and monitor Florida elections for 10 years. There was no effort to overturn the results of the presidential race won by George W. Bush.
"We're pleased the court ruled the way it did," said Anita Hodgkiss, an attorney with the Lawyers' Committee For Civil Rights Under Law. "All of these were important steps for us."
Harris, state elections chief Clay Roberts and county election supervisors were named in the suit.
"Secretary Harris has consistently maintained that this lawsuit is unnecessary as the election reform act has addressed virtually all of the issues it raises," said David Host, a Harris spokesman.
Harris' lawyers had asked the judge to delay the proceedings while the U.S. Justice Department considered the elections reform package. Under the Voting Rights Act, federal approval of voting changes is needed in five counties with a history of discrimination.
Lawmakers approved a $32 million election reform package in May that will eliminate punch-card and hand-counted paper ballots, and mechanical-lever voting. All precincts will be required to have optical-scan or touch-screen ballot systems in place for the 2002 fall election.
Gold approved a motion that would allow the civil rights groups to amend their case to account for the changes.
"On some of the claims, even if this law had been in effect, our plaintiffs would not have been able to vote," Hodgkiss said. "For others, we want to see how it's implemented before we can be certain that it has solved the problems."
Groups supporting the lawsuit said blacks were kept from casting ballots by antiquated voting machines, breakdowns in registration and purges of registration lists that discarded rightful voters. Some voters were not given required language assistance, the groups charged.
The 22 plaintiffs include voters and others who say they were turned away. Some applications were signed at state motor vehicle offices but were not processed, and about 17,000 letters were sent out informing people they couldn't vote because they were convicted felons.
The two lawsuits reflect the persistent reverberations of the contentious 2000 vote, in which Florida's decisive electoral votes were awarded to Mr. Bush after a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling effectively ended manual recounts.
In recent months:
- A review of uncounted ballots in Miami-Dade County showed Al Gore would not have gained enough votes to overtake Mr. Bush in Florida, a newspaper reported.
- The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights approved a report that suggests blacks disproportionately had their ballots discounted in Florida's elections, leading to widespread violations of the Voting Rights Act.
- A New York Times investigation into overseas ballots that helped Mr. Bush win the presidency found that Florida election officials, facing intense GOP pressure to accept military votes, counted hundreds of overseas absentee ballots that failed to comply with state election laws.
- Government computers in Harris' office contained documents endorsing Mr. Bush's candidacy for president, an initial review of computer files showed.
- Two universities reported that as many as 6 million votes might have been lost nationwide in the 2000 election.
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