November 2004 Issue  Volume 5  Number 6

Access Issues

To Vote or Not to Vote Is Not the Question

It is an amazing presidential election we are having in 2004, one that will certainly capture a special spot in history books, and the candidates are only part of the phenomenon. First, of course, there are the campaigns themselves--garnering more rapt attention from the American public than any in perhaps 40 years. Second, there is all the furor about a paper trail for vote verification and recount purposes. One unusual element of this particular chapter of history in progress is that people with disabilities, a group who rarely loom large in politics or public policy, have a significant role this time.

The ballot recount in 2000 stirred up a number of issues regarding our electoral system. First, there was the concern that the paper ballots produced by punch-card and mechanical machines were not reliable. Second, there was the issue of voters whose names had erroneously appeared on lists of people who had died. Clearly, it was time for some reform--and, of course, in the 21st century, reform involves technology. A means of voting that was more reliable than, say, the one that produced the hanging chads had to be found. For people with disabilities, this unfortunate state of affairs was something of an opportunity, a chance, at long last, to step inside the voting-rights circle with the status of more than neglected stepchildren. Not only were millions of dollars allocated to research and install electronic voting machines, but the Help America Vote Act, signed into law in 2002, guarantees that the machines and the polling places that house them will provide accessibility to people with disabilities.

AccessWorld has evaluated electronic voting machines in past issues (most recently in July 2004); for this article, suffice it to say that there are several models that provide accessibility to voters who are blind or have low vision. If progress had continued in the direction it was headed without interference, at least 12 percent of the voting population would be voting on accessible machines on November 2. Even so, a good 8 percent of the population will be casting ballots on machines that all voters can use independently.

Photo of man wearing headphones using a table-top machine with a large touch screen. A keypad sits nearby.

Caption: For the first time this November, a substantial number of voters who are blind or visually impaired will be able to cast their ballots independently on electronic voting machines.

The "interference" was the highly controversial debate over the necessity (or lack thereof) of a "voter-verifiable paper-audit trail." The argument for this type of paper trail was initiated by Rebecca Mercuri in her 2000 Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, "Electronic Vote Tabulation Checks and Balances," Some computer scientists fear that the electronic machines can be tampered with, and votes will be altered; political scientists and election officials argue that these claims are made without a real understanding of how elections and vote-counting procedures really work.

Paper Is Not Perfect

Jim Dickson, vice president of governmental affairs for the Washington, DC-based American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), pointed out in a recent interview that percentages of voting errors are much higher on machines that produce paper than on touch-screen machines. He cited data gathered in California and elsewhere that estimated that the error rate of touch-screen voting is about 1.5 percent (as low as 7/10 of 1 percent in some cases), whereas the error rate for optical scan systems is at least 2.7 percent, and for punch-card systems as much as 6 percent of votes cast will not be counted. Dickson pointed out that it was paper (in the form of punch cards and hanging chads) that triggered the 2000 voting debacle in Florida. Dan Tokaji, an Ohio State University professor of law and civil rights, adamantly agreed: "If electronic voting had been in place in those Florida jurisdictions where punch cards were used in 2000," he wrote in his online blog <> "the result would very likely have been different. Fewer votes would have been lost, especially in minority communities that tend to benefit most from voting technology that provides error notification and 'second chance' voting."

In some states, legislators have canceled the purchase of accessible touch-screen machines or postponed their use, mandated the addition of printers, or otherwise detoured from the march toward accessibility. Certainly, people are stirred up on both sides of this debate. While the mass media in some areas have depicted the problem as a "verification versus accessibility" dispute, groups like the AAPD, League of Women Voters, and others have contended that to presume such an either/or choice is to misconstrue the facts. Those who are opposed to the voter-verified paper trail have argued that secure, verified voting is essential--but not via paper. Votes can be cast electronically and verified electronically as well. When all is said and done, the point is that legitimate concerns about security of electronic voting can be satisfied without stopping the move to accessible machines.

The Access States

Although progress for voters with disabilities is definitely in jeopardy as a result of the delays in implementing accessible voting machines caused by the controversy, the good news is that in many counties in many states, people who are visually impaired or have other disabilities will be able to vote independently in the 2004 election. If you live in either Maryland or Georgia, you are in the friendliest states for voters who are blind or have low vision this year. At least one accessible machine will be located at every polling place in these two states. Washington, DC, will also have one accessible machine per polling location. In Florida, about 40% of all voters will cast their ballots on accessible touch-screen machines, as will voters in most large cities in Texas, much of California, suburban Denver, and five Ohio counties. All voters in Nevada will use touch-screen machines, although these machines are both new, accessible machines and the older inaccessible units. Machines that are being used are a mix--Diebold in Maryland; Sequoia in Washington, DC; and Hart eSlates in suburban Denver and Alexandria, Virginia. Other states have a mix of manufacturers, with Diebold being perhaps the most widely represented.

The Many Faces of Accessibility

Just knowing that there is an accessible touch-screen machine at your polling place is not, Dickson warned, sufficient information for ensuring yourself that this year you can vote the way the designers of that machine intended--that is, without sighted assistance. Some poll workers have not been trained to turn the access features on (this caveat is not relevant in the case of the Hart eSlate, since the text-to-speech feature is always active and can be heard as soon as a headset is plugged in). Or perhaps the poll worker knows how to turn on the access features, but someone misplaced the headphones. Election officials in Palm Beach, Florida, thought it would be enough to apologize for forgetting to turn on the access features, but they are in court for the second time, being sued by individuals with disabilities for their "oversight." Dickson stated that people need to call the local election board before election day to be sure that someone will be on hand to render accessible voting machines truly accessible.

And for the vast majority of Americans with disabilities whose counties have not yet adopted accessibility, Dickson said, "You must be vigilant. These counties have until January 1, 2006, to come into compliance," with at least one accessible machine in every polling place, "but to do that, they need to get started immediately. It takes a year to get up and running once the decision has been made to put in the touch-screen machines." He suggested that people need to telephone their election officials right after the November election, and again in early January, to inquire whether an order for equipment was placed, a contract was signed, or delivery is scheduled.

The Sleeping Giant

An estimated 40 million Americans of voting age have disabilities. Historically, voter turnout among this group has been extremely low. In Ohio, for example, a recent "get out the vote" effort by 19 cooperating disability organizations found that of 50,000 people with disabilities, 70 percent were not registered voters. To Dickson, who has dedicated the past 15 years of his career to building the voting power of people with disabilities, figures like these are appalling.

"We've had a lot of progress," Dickson said, "but if you want programs created, if you want civil rights laws, there are two ways to make things happen: You give a lot of money to politicians, or you get a lot of votes. . . . To see real change, we have no choice but to become the largest voting block."

People with disabilities have been called the sleeping giant in the voting population, and Dickson is by no means alone in believing that the time has come for the giant to wake up. For people who are blind or have low vision who go to the polls this year, slap on a headset, and navigate through the audio to exercise their right to vote, November 2 will have an added bonus. But for most of us this election year, the old method of taking a friend or relative to read and help mark the ballot, asking a poll worker for assistance, or marking an absentee ballot at home is just as vital. An estimated one-third of the country's voters in November will still use punch-card systems, and an estimated 1 million of those ballots will fail, for one reason or another, to make it into the count. If the value of disaster is newly acquired knowledge, then people with disabilities have benefited in at least two ways from the disputed election and recount of 2000: First, with continued vigilance and advocacy there will be accessible voting machines in every polling place by 2006 and, second, and of more immediate import, now that we have learned that some votes will inevitably be lost from the count, the power of each and every one of our ballots assumes additional significance.

In other words, whether you can do it independently or not, the most important message to people with disabilities is, as disability rights leader Justin Dart, Jr., used to say: "Vote as if your life depends on it--because it does."

Related Articles

Cast a Vote by Yourself: A Review of Accessible Voting Machines by Darren Burton and Mark Uslan
The Ballot Ballet: The Usability of Accessible Voting Machines by Darren Burton and Mark Uslan

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