Before I post any more entries about accessible voting, let’s define some names and terms:
The American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) is the prime disability advocacy organization pushing for accessible voting, and by “accessible voting” we mean everything from getting into the poll site to casting a private, independent vote. AAPD’s voting guru is Jim Dickson, vice president of governmental affairs. Those with good memories recognize Dickson as a long-time voting advocate. Dickson’s credited with helping to register over 700,000 people with disabilities and 3.5 million African-Americans. This is a hell of a track record, yet Dickson’s under fire by some voting advocacy groups who think he’s pushing too hard to keep faulty voting machines in America’s poll sites.
Controversially, according to the New York Times, a few years ago AAPD received a donation from voting-machine manufacturers. That’ll never happen again, says Marianna Nork, AAPD’s senior vice president of development. “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. It [the contribution] is being interpreted in a multitude of ways,” says Nork, which takes the focus off the real issue: voting access.
The Help America Vote Act (HAVA), passed in 2002, was a major victory for AAPD and everyone with a disability, as it states each poll site must be accessible and have at least one accessible voting machine. Problem: One of the more accessible direct-recording electronic (DRE) machines at the time was manufactured by Diebold, and some voting advocates have interpreted the NYT article as saying Diebold gave AAPD money. These voting advocates speculate AAPD wanted those specific machines because of perceived ties with Diebold. Maybe, but AAPD and Dickson’s advocacy around voting issues predates HAVA by years. And, again, AAPD says Diebold is not one of the voting machine manufacturers it took money from.
The problem with DREs, according to many voting advocates, is they can be easily hacked into and there’s no way to do an independent audit -- or recount -- of the electronically-cast ballots. The problem with us -- meaning disability rights advocates -- is we’re perceived as putting access over a sound, hack-proof national voting system. Like many controversies, each side makes good points. Like, how much longer should our community be expected to wait for fully-accessible voting venues? And, conversely, would it be so bad to wait a few more years for a system that’s both accessible and hack-proof?
Voting advocates want “voter verifiable” methods that create a “paper trail.” One way this would work is a voter could peek inside the machine and see the printed ballot. But are these machines low enough for wheelchair users, and can the printed ballot be read by assistive technology for people who are blind?
Another proposed way to handle this issue is to use machines that spit out a ballot that gets fed into an optical scanner. An optical scanner is a machine that counts the vote that was printed out because machines (or their programmers) can’t be trusted. Sheesh. But with this system, the votes can be hand-counted. One machine that works like this is the ES&S Automark some disability rights advocates swear by. Other disability rights advocates are careful to say no one machine is truly accessible and voter-verifiable yet.
Wait, there’s more.
Now we have H.R. 811, known as the “Holt bill” since it was introduced by Rep. Rush Holt, a Democrat from New Jersey. This bill is the ball to keep your eye on. The bill’s long name is the Voter Confidence and Increased Accessibility Act. It’s expected to pass out of the House of Representatives shortly. The Holt bill calls for all poll sites to have voter-verifiable machines with paper trails by 2008. Then, in 2010, the bill calls for a report to see if these machines actually work the way they’re intended. Yeah, you read that right. The bill would implement a nation-wide system to be used for two years before it’s tested to see if it works. All DREs without a paper trail would be banned. This means many of the accessible machines that have been installed to comply with HAVA may become illegal, if they can’t be retrofitted to have paper trails.
As you can imagine, this bill has groups like AAPD, United Spinal Association and the National Council on Independent Living very concerned. AAPD is flat-out against the bill; United Spinal and NCIL are for the bill if the 2008 deadline could be extended to 2010. That extension would give time for new machines that are both accessible and voter-verifiable to be developed.
People for the American Way, a well-known left-leaning civil rights group, is a prime supporter of the Holt bill. PFAW thinks we have adequate technology to meet everyone’s needs, including people with disabilities. Other progressive groups criticize PFAW for trusting any voting machines at all. It’s hard to imagine, but it seems some voting advocates actually want us all to go back to using nothing but paper ballots. Not much has been heard from the right on this issue.
Next: Talking with the Advocates