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Ruling revives voting lawsuit

A federal appeals court on Monday revived a lawsuit challenging Florida's touch screen voting machines, renewing a rancorous debate over the lack of a paper trail just five weeks before the election.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, the Boca Raton Democrat who filed the lawsuit, called the decision "a huge win for us."

"We are going to fight tooth and nail to have this case heard as soon as possible," said Wexler spokeswoman Lale Mamaux.

A federal judge in Fort Lauderdale threw out the lawsuit in May on jurisdictional grounds. But the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta said those grounds were baseless and ordered the judge to hear the case.

"We are ready to go to trial right now," said Jeffrey M. Liggio, Wexler's attorney.

It's unlikely the case will be decided before the Nov. 2 election, though it rekindles a public debate that had been muted in recent weeks as Florida was pummeled by four hurricanes.

Wexler wants elections officials to require touch screen machines to generate a backup paper ballot in the event of a manual recount.

The appeals court decision came the same day former President Jimmy Carter, who monitors international elections, predicted that Florida will repeat the same problems the nation witnessed in 2000.

Florida needs uniform procedures to ensure that all voters have "equal assurance" that their votes are counted, Carter wrote in an opinion piece in the Washington Post.

"With reforms unlikely at this late stage of the election," Carter wrote, "perhaps the only recourse will be to focus maximum public scrutiny on the suspicious process in Florida."

Secretary of State Glenda Hood has three weeks to ask the appeals court to reconsider. A spokeswoman for Hood said Monday she did not know what Hood would do and defended the touch screen machines on which about half the state's voters will cast ballots.

"We are extremely disappointed that Congressman Wexler is trying to erode voter confidence in the very same systems that have delivered hundreds of successful elections since 2002," said Alia Faraj.

A spokesman for Gov. Jeb Bush, Jacob DiPietre, criticized Carter, calling his article "shockingly partisan."

"The president clearly doesn't have his facts straight," DiPietre said. "It is ironic that someone who has spent so much time encouraging faith in the elections of Third World countries would go to such lengthy partisan extremes to undermine voter confidence in his own country."

Even if Wexler won the case, elections supervisors in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco, which all have touch screen machines, say it would be impossible to change systems before the election.

"There is nothing that can be done before November, and there hasn't been for some time," Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson said.

Even Johnson's opponent, Democrat Rob MacKenna, agrees that elections officials cannot buy new voting machines now. "It could make matters worse," he said.

Pinellas Elections Supervisor Deborah Clark has studied a touch screen voting system that generates a paper trail, used recently without problems in Nevada. But she's not convinced the system will work in heavily populated areas in Florida.

MacKenna hopes Wexler's lawsuit will force voters to pay attention to the issue.

"I think it's good because it keeps the issue in the public eye," MacKenna said. "There is so much going on, and this is very, very important. The reliability of the voting counting apparatus is something that people ought to be concerned about."

Also Monday, Hood decided not to appeal an administrative judge's August ruling that a state rule barring counties with touch screen machines from conducting manual recounts is at odds with a state law requiring hand recounts in certain close elections.

The decision not to appeal means the rule no longer exists, but the state plans to bring interested parties together to develop a new solution, Faraj said.

Faraj said she could not speculate whether a new rule would be formulated by the election.

Times staff writer Joni James and the Associated Press contributed to this report.