Access vs. Integrity: The Voting Machine Controversy

Photo Courtesy of Ann Arbor District Library

Right now the disability community has more influence on issues of national policy than ever before. Our nation’s legislature won’t move forward on voting reform – an issue affecting all Americans – without our community’s general approval.

The main engine for voting reform is H.R. 811, called “the Holt bill” after its sponsor, Rep. Rush Holt, a Democrat from New Jersey. This bill requires every single voting machine in the United States to have a paper trail by the 2008 elections. “Paper trail” generally means the machine would be able to spit out a paper record of all tallied votes.

Why are paper-trails a big deal? A type of machine currently being used, called direct-recording electronic, doesn’t allow for independent recounts. Your vote becomes an electronic blip, unable to be recounted or audited. And what makes this a disability issue? Accessibility. These DREs have some nifty features that allow people with such disabilities as quadriplegia to vote privately and independently.

“Wheelchair users should care very much about this issue because if Holt forces a certain type of technology that includes a paper trail, then many are going to have a poll worker coming over and handling their ballot,” says John Herrion, counsel for United Spinal Association. “The accessibility for wheelchair users of these machines is very impressive, it really is. The problem is once that paper ballot comes out of the printer, who’s going to handle it? If the voter can’t handle it, that brings in the poll worker, which brings up privacy issues.”

For example, the ES&S Automark voting machine is low and can be used by people with limited use of their hands. It spits out a paper ballot that then gets fed into an optical scanner, and so would be “Holt approved.” In some districts currently using this machine, everyone gives the printed ballot to a poll worker, and so voters with limited hand use are treated exactly the same as everyone else. But Herrion and other advocates say this doesn’t happen everywhere – in some districts only people who can’t manipulate a piece of paper must give their ballot to a poll worker, which means that a person’s right to a private vote could be compromised. “We haven’t endorsed a product because we don’t think it’s there yet,” says Herrion.

United Spinal’s neutrality on Holt comes with a caveat. “We don’t want to get behind it because of some of the realities we see, but we don’t want to lose anything either,” says Herrion – like whether or not the final bill will allow enough time and money for jurisdictions to install accessible machines with paper trails. And where does United Spinal fall on the integrity issue – meaning, if the current machines are so flawed that they can’t be trusted to do a legitimate count, then should the disability community delay paper-trail legislation? “It’s a difficult issue to come to consensus on,” says Herrion, diplomatically.

A Passionate Error
The American Association of People with Disabilities’ vice president of governmental affairs, Jim Dickson, can be called knowledgeable, passionate and committed. But he’s probably not called diplomatic very often. Unlike United Spinal, AAPD flat-out opposes Holt. “I’m very, very skeptical and I think the Holt bill is the worst piece of election legislation that I have seen in 25 years of working on election law,” says Dickson. “It’s not just bad for us, it’s bad for the country.”

Andrew Carr casts a paper ballot in a conventional voting booth.

Andrew Carr casts a paper ballot in a conventional voting booth.

Dickson is skeptical that any paper-based system can be better than DRE machines, and he doubts the Holt bill will take access as seriously as it takes security and accuracy. “Let’s be real about it. We know what’s going to happen to people with disabilities,” says Dickson. “They’re not about to buy something that’s accessible six years later when it’s available. It’s been how many years since buses have been accessible? And we still have places that buy inaccessible buses.”

Dickson, a long-time voting advocate, has taken part in initiatives that registered over 700,000 people with disabilities and 3.5 million African-Americans, and he also was instrumental in getting the Help America Vote Act passed in 2002 – HAVA requires each poll site to be accessible and have an accessible voting machine. But Dickson’s leadership on disability and voting issues is now controversial outside of the disability community because of contributions AAPD took from voting machine manufacturers a few years ago. That story broke as part of a June 11, 2004 editorial in The New York Times. Ever since then AAPD has been plagued by accusations it took money from Diebold, a voting machine manufacturer linked to partisan, conservative contributions — even though the Times story did not name Diebold as one of AAPD’s contributors.

AAPD receiving donations from voting manufacturers wasn’t covered in just the Times. Here’s what was reported in “Diebold and the Disabled,” which ran in Wired News back in October 2004:

When asked in April, Jim Dickson, vice president of government affairs for the AAPD, told Wired News his organization had never received money from voting companies. But in June, he told The New York Times the organization had gotten money.

And here’s a small taste of what’s still floating around the blogosphere regarding Dickson and voting machines:

“Representatives from those groups [The National Federation for the Blind and AAPD] have testified at hearings and elsewhere to help make the case that their members simply must have computerized voting machines – with no paper ballots – or their civil rights will be denied.

What is rarely reported when folks such as the AAPD’s Jim Dickson inevitably shows up at these hearings to testify is that the NFB received a contribution of one million dollars from Diebold and Dickson’s AAPD has received at least $26,000 from them as well, as reported by theNY Times and others.”

AAPD’s having receiving money from voting manufacturers is now commonly reported as AAPD has received money from Diebold. It’s an interesting morph, but there is no definitive proof to support allegations that AAPD took money from Diebold.

In response to the political fallout surrounding the contributions it did receive, AAPD has pledged to never accept money from any voting machine manufacturer ever again. “We will not take money from any voting manufacturer and we will not even send an invitation to our gala because we don’t want any sense that we would take any monetary support from any manufacturer,” says Marianna Nork, AAPD’s senior vice president of development. “It [the contribution] is being interpreted in a multitude of ways, which takes the focus off the real issue: voting access.”

Regardless of what corporations AAPD received money from, Dickson’s record is not one of a man who would purposely compromise his long-held and passionate commitment to accessible voting. But it’s important to understand the heat the disability community is taking on this issue by those who believe, based on the contributions received by a few disability organizations, that no disability organization can be trusted on this issue. These are, generally, the same people who also believe our nation must choose between either machines that accurately count and report our votes or machines that allow all citizens to vote.

But some voting advocates don’t think we should be forced to make that choice.

No Compromise on Access
Take People From the American Way, for example. This well-known civil rights group is a major supporter of the Holt bill, and here’s what spokesperson David Becker says about accessibility and over-all voting system security: “I view them as being inseparable. Imagine if they said in order to get a system that is 100 percent secure, let’s take 10 percent of the population out and block them from voting. People will say, ‘no way.’ But we’ll say, how about a group that’s already largely disenfranchised, like blacks. People will still say ‘no way.’ And yet, some people think that individuals with certain disabilities are just going to have to suck it up,” says Becker. “And that’s a choice I refuse, and PFAW refuses, to accept.”

Becker knows Holt is an imperfect vehicle for voting reform. “2008 is not the finish line for access or integrity. We are not going to have perfect elections in 2008,” he says. “What we need to do is pass legislation that tries to acknowledge the current state of accessible technology — which is not fully accessible — and provide incentives for it to be increased, and do the same thing for security and integrity issues.”

Voting advocates who present access issues as a diversion from integrity issues drive Becker to distraction, especially the advocates who attack those they disagree with. “There’s a schism developing on what’s perceived as the left, lots of vitriol. It’s not productive and the rightwing is the only beneficiary of that. We’ve got to put this questioning of motives aside,” says Becker, who urges a closer look at the AAPD controversy. “It is not crazy for people with disabilities to be working with manufacturers of devices that try to even the playing field. Frankly, it’d be crazy for the disability community to NOT work with these companies.”

Right now PFAW takes heat from groups much further left who consider PFAW’s support of the Holt bill as something akin to high treason. Here’s a snippet from the Democratic Underground blog:

“People for the American Way (PFAW) — previously the “good guys” in many a fight for your democracy — continues their dishonest and misleading campaign to support Rep. Rush Holt’s dangerous Election Reform Bill (H.R. 811).”

“The tension put out on all this stuff is that it’s access vs. the security and accuracy of our elections, and we’ve been put in a situation where we have to agree with one side or the other,” says Christina Galindo-Walsh, spokesperson for the National Disability Rights Network, which works within the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities on voting issues. “The bulk of people at CCD say look, we want both. We want fair and accurate elections that ensure accessibility, and we think it can be done.”

Galindo-Walsh says instead of supporting one type of voting system over another, we should simply insist that whatever system’s agreed upon can be used by everyone. “The majority of states have passed paper-trail legislation, requiring some paper record. That train has left the station — it’s fruitless to fight it,” she says. “So we decided to get out of the debate of whether something is secure or not secure, because frankly we don’t have the time or expertise to make those assessments anyway. We’re going to focus on what we know: accessibility. If others have decided paper’s the way to make things more secure, then there needs to be a way to make that paper accessible, to secure a private and independent vote.”

Coming to this conclusion wasn’t all that hard for NDRN and CCD, given the diversity of opinion among people with disabilities. “There are some in our community who are fine with DREs and some who would rather give up all their accessibility because they’re scared the machines won’t count their vote,” says Galindo-Walsh. “In this way the disability population isn’t any different than the rest of the population. Some in the broader community feel very strongly that the machines are evil, and others feel they’re trustworthy and there’s no problem.” Besides, she points out, “There is no machine right now in any jurisdiction in the country that meets HAVA [accessibility] criteria.”

Meanwhile, the Holt bill lurches forward, and right now it looks as if its deadlines for accessibility will be tweaked. The New York Times reported on July 21 that the bill’s most sweeping changes now won’t be implemented until 2012, which gives disability rights advocates more time to figure out the whole accessible machine conundrum. What comes next? We’ll see on election day.

Voting Advocacy Organizations
• American Association of People with Disabilities, 800/840-8844 or 202/457-0046; www.aapd-dc.org
• Consortium for Citizens Disabilities, 202/783-2229; www.c-c-d.org
• National Disability Rights Network, 202/408-9514; www.napas.org
• People for the American Way, 202/467-4999 or 800/326-7329; www.pfaw.org
• United Spinal Association, 718/803-3782 or 800/404-2898; www.unitedspinal.org

Bills and Laws
• H.R. 811, known as the “Holt Bill” and the “Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act,” can be found via the Library of Congress THOMAS search engine, www.thomas.gov
• Information on the Helping America Vote Act of 2002 is available from the Federal Election Commission, 202/694-1100 or 800/424-9530; www.fec.gov/hava/hava.htm

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