November 02, 2005

Politicizing Accessible -- uh, Electronic -- Voting

In the wake of lawsuits filed by CA Attorney General Bill Lockyer in October against two California counties for failing to make voting accessible to blind and disabled voters, a number of communities in that state have been testing new equipment. Stories about the tests have been in the news -- as have the ongoing alarms about electronic voting.

Voting electronically has become such a political hot potato that it is difficult for an outsider to determine where the truth lies. What does seem clear, however -- as we have reported in the past -- is that concerns about fraud in electronic voting far outstrip the public's concern that blind and severely disabled people have a chance to vote in secret. While there are a number of stories featuring blind voters who exult that this is the "first time I've been able to vote in secret," we haven't found any editorials or columnists discussing the importance of a disabled person's right to a secret ballot -- although we have found a lot of heat, although not much light, over the Voter ID controversy.

A story from the Contra Costa Times on Sunday reported that a test-run of the AutoMARK electronic voting machine by students from the California School for the Blind in Fremont pronounced the machine "uncommonly user-friendly.

"The students found a device that affords a rare ease of use."

Contra Costa and Sacramento counties in California will be using AutoMARK on Nov. 8 in a special election. Not too many elections are being held this November, and that's probably good. Gives local politicos time to test the machines. Under the Help America Vote Act, communities have until 2006 to acquire at least one machine per precinct that allows disabled people to vote independently -- a "handicap-accessible voting machine," the Lubbock, TX campus paper for Texas Tech called it.

The machine Lubbock was using wasn't identified as to brand, but it was described:

The voting machines use a wheel turn. To use the wheel, the voter turns the select wheel to highlight their ballot choice. Then the voter presses the enter button to enter their selection.

It is very handicap friendly ... The machines also come with Braille and headphones for blind voters.

The new machines are often referred to as DRE machines. "DRE" stands for "Direct Recording Electronic" -- generally shorthand for electronic "touch screen" voting machines.

The Contra Costa Times reports that the AutoMARK machine tested "features magnified print, contrasting colors, an audio headset, directional keys, a foot pedal and a port for a respiration-activated device."

The Sacramento Bee's Robert Davila began his story about the AutoMARK units like this:

Unlike most American voters, John M. Franklin Jr. of Rancho Cordova doesn't cast a secret ballot on Election Day.

Because he is legally blind, someone else must accompany him at the polling place to read the contest choices and mark Franklin's selections.

"My wife has to go with me," said Franklin, Sacramento County's chief of disability compliance programs. "She has to go over the whole thing with me. If there's a long ballot, it can take a long time."

Next month, a new device will let Franklin and other people with disabilities mark their choices in private and keep them confidential. All Sacramento County polling places in the Nov. 8 election will have special terminals for voters who are blind, visually impaired or unable to mark a ballot in the usual way.

While Sacramento County voter registrar Jill LaVine told Davila that "the new terminals will be available at all 419 polling places for the special election" on Nov. 8, at least one wheelchair user has complained privately that, while the new machines may be accessible, many of the locations of California polling sites using them remain inaccessible to wheelchair users. Ragged Edge hasn't been able to confirm this report, although studies and reports from other communities about the slow pace of making voting sites accessible make the comment seem reasonable.

Across the country, other stories focus on the fact that so-and-so has never before been able to vote in secret, or independently, until now.

A story like this, also featuring the AutoMARK, appeared in the Joliet, IL Herald-News. After beginning with the typical now-I-can-vote-independently lede --

[Richard] Parrish was born blind so his wife, Valerie Brew-Parrish, has had to mark his ballot for him.

"I would take her in (to the voting booth) and tell her who I wanted to vote for," he said.

That's all about to change. Parrish and thousands of other Will County voters with disabilities will be able to cast ballots independently for the first time in March.

-- Staff Writer Cindy Wojdyla Cain reports that

People with visual impairments will use headphones to hear ballot choices. They will push a keypad to vote.

People with motor impairments can use hand or foot pedals to vote. The pedals will be provided at polling places.

People who use "sip and puff" devices to operate wheelchairs can use the same systems to vote by plugging their equipment into the voting machines....

AutoMARK can be used by a wide variety of people ranging from someone who forgot their reading glasses to someone who is completely blind. People who are illiterate or have reading disabilities like dyslexia also can use the system. Motor skill disabilities can range from minor grip problems to quadriplegia.

(Valerie Brew-Parrish, interviewed in this story, is a Ragged Edge contributing writer).

There are a number of DREs out there, and opinions fly fast and furious about which ones are less subject to fraud, which ones won't overcount or undercount the vote, which ones can't be hacked.

A number of locales in Massachusetts will field-test allegedly accessible voting machines on Nov. 8 after which officials will select one machine to purchase, reports the Watertown TAB and Press.Among the machines being tested is the Diebold AccuVote-TSX. Officials there stress that the machines all offer "a paper trail of a voter's ballot."

The Porterville, CA Recorder reported that the Sequoia system Tulare County would use in June, 2006 in its next scheduled election has "a feed system that will automatically reject ballots that haven't been properly filled out, and a new ballot that features broken arrows that when filled in represent a vote, as opposed to the old 'oval' ballots. ... The machines also include several failsafes to ensure voting integrity, including a key-card system that only allows for a voter's key to be read once."

Back in California, Monterey County Registrar of Voters Tony Anchundo appeared on the Oct. 24 Peter B. Collins Show on Monterey's KRXA radio, bringing into the studio one of the Sequoia touch-screen units being used Nov. 8. Here's how Anchundo explained the system to host Peter Collins:

This technology has been around for many years, but this is the first time that a voter-verifiable paper report will appear to voters. They don't actually get a receipt, it's an opportunity for them to verify with the paper report, that the votes that they voted were cast properly and they can review it and then cast their ballot and you know, leave the polling place knowing that there's some integrity and honesty to the voting system. ...once a voter comes into their polling place, they have to be a registered voter, so they will sign the roster, determine eligibility, ... then the poll worker will insert a voter card into the activation unit. The activation unit just tells ... that this voter is eligible to vote.

Collins says,

I want to describe the activator, which is a box about the size of a Playstation, or an Xbox, and it features a display screen at the top and there is an insert where this card, that is a plastic, digitally encodable card, the kind of thing you use at a hotel room. People are very familiar with these, these days, credit card size. What you did is inserted it and based on the verification of my information, that I'm a registered voter, you then issue me this card, which enables me to go to the DRE machine itself.... So I push it in and now it's asking me whether I want English, or Espanol, and I'll choose English. Now it's giving me a choice of candidates...

Is it hack-proof? asked Collins and his guests.

There seems to be a great deal of debate as to whether electronic voting systems can really be made "hack proof." The debate seems hopelessly politicized. On the website of Voters Unite, that politicization has extended to questioning whether the machines are even really accessible. It seems that is trying to convince visitors that they're not. They try to convince visitors that there's no need to go to a DRE machine; that the old optical scan machines are fine.

They link to an article by Kelly Pierce, described as "a blind voter who works in the Cook County [Chicago] State’s Attorney’s Office." The article, "Accessibility Analysis of Four Proposed Voting Machines," is dated March 23, 2005.

Because the issue is so hopelessly politicized, it seems almost impossible to judge any of this stuff on its merits. Pierce seems to suggest that even the new machines are not really able to be operated independently. "The likely cause for the difficulties experienced by blind users on these voting machines," writes Pierce, "is the minimal and unsubstantive involvement of blind persons and those with disabilities in the design, development, and testing of the machines, their software, and their interfaces."

The fact that one of Pierce's reports is offered in inaccessible PDF format leaves a bad taste in the mouth, however, as well as bringing into question the group's own commitment to access.

Other testimonials on their site include those by blind people who say the artificial speech is difficult to understand, and that the directions are unclear. They insist that statements made in April by American Association of People with Disabilities Vote Project's Jim Dickson are simply incorrect.

Voters Unite seems to be espousing returning to non-electronic forms altogether -- including ways to using a tactile ballot template from Vote-PAD, much like those templates blind people use to sign checks -- and other non technical solutions such as voting by phone. ( Read more on the accessibility page of Voters Unite. )

So what are we to make of the comments of people like Richard Parrish and the students at the Fremont school?

Who's right?

In late October, Democrats released a Government Accountability Office report warning that there were still "security and reliability flaws" in electronic voting machines. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D.-Calif), the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Government Reform, said, "The report makes clear that there is a lack of transparency and accountability in electronic voting systems -- from the day that contracts are signed with manufacturers to the counting of electronic votes on Election Day. State and local officials are spending a great deal of money on machines without concrete proof that they are secure and reliable."

The report, in accessible format (which was hard to find) is at It does not exactly "make clear" that the machines all have problems. What the preparers of the report do say, as their first paragraph in the "what GAO found" section, is this:

While electronic voting systems hold promise for improving the election process, numerous entities have raised concerns about their security and reliability, citing instances of weak security controls, system design flaws, inadequate system version control, inadequate security testing, incorrect system configuration, poor security management, and vague or incomplete voting system standards (see below for examples). It is important to note that many of these concerns were based on specific system makes and models or a specific jurisdiction's election, and there is no consensus among election officials and other experts on their pervasiveness. Nevertheless, some have caused problems in elections and therefore merit attention.

One might interpret this to mean it's been politicized beyond any true ability to make sense of things.

Following the GAO report's release, Znet and Truthout, two progressive websites, quickly trumpeted the fact that"GAO Report Finds Flaws in Electronic Voting""

Both sites, like the Waxman site, provided the GAO report in the graphics-based PDF format inaccessible to blind folks.

Posted on November 02, 2005