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Read New York Times Circuits columnist David Pogue's take on e-voting (Free regis. req'd.)



For the first time in history, there are machines that will allow anyone, regardless of disability, to vote independently and in secret. But they're not 'secure,' we're told. As usual, once again, disabled people are being told to . . . wait.

Waiting -- Again -- for The Vote

By Mary Johnson
Once again access -- real access for voters who have disabilities that preclude their use of traditional balloting methods -- is being pushed aside. This time the issue is "security."

photo of electronic voting machine

WHAT HAPPENED TO THE bright promise of fully accessible voting heralded by the Help America Vote Act? As has happened with all the other laws promising access to voting -- the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and amendments to the Voting Rights Act -- disabled people are once again being told to ... be patient and wait awhile.

"How much longer, exactly, I am expected to wait before I am treated like a first-class citizen?" asked feminist and disability activist Ingrid Tischer in an email.

"Make no mistake, voting discrimination is alive and well among the poor and in communities of color, but at least this country has moved on from the shame of Jim Crow and laws barring women from voting. Too bad citizens with disabilities don't merit at least the patina of respect for this critical civil right that zealous enforcement of existing laws would provide."

When you can't vote without relying on someone else to read the ballot for you -- and to mark your choice -- you lose not only your right to a secret ballot. You are also never sure -- truly sure -- that the person voting for you is actually putting down the voting choice you want. When you can't stand up at a traditional voting booth, you must be given a different means of voting -- usually this has meant a paper ballot, if you have the hand dexterity to mark one. Otherwise you must again rely on someone else to cast your vote for you -- and you are robbed of the right of a secret vote.

Electronic voting has the means to change all this. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 -- the law passed in the wake of the 2000 Florida election debacle -- required new voting technology that would be equally accessible to nondisabled and disabled voters. Machines designed for use in compliance with the law are the size of laptop computers (which is what they essentially are); they can be put into a wheelchair user's lap -- or they are built into portable voting booths that are wide and easily fit around a wheelchair, offering privacy. They have headsets and an audio option for blind voters. They have touch screen or push-button controls -- with different shapes to distingish choices -- and with Braille markings defining the buttons. People with limited hand use can manage the large, differently shaped buttons. And people whose first language is not English -- or people who cannot read -- can use the audio feature, which can read ballot choices in the voter's first language. (More about accessible voting machines.)

State and county election officials began buying the new machines shortly after the law took effect. Soon after that, those worried about computer security began raising the spectre of fraud.

The fear is fanned by grass-roots activists, most of them "progressives," unfortunately, who say the new computerized touchscreen systems can't be trusted and are a threat to democracy itself, to read some of the rhetoric. An entire election could be hijacked, they warn.

Typical of the progressives' concern over electronic voting is well-known leftie Jill Nelson's June 3 op-ed in USAToday: "[I]n the states where electronic machines have been used, problems include names disappearing from ballots and hackers gaining easy access to the system. Also, cyberspace voting leaves no record that would be crucial in a close election. Voting-rights groups are demanding that paper receipts be issued."

So access -- real access for voters who have disabilities that preclude their use of traditional balloting methods -- is once again being pushed aside as less important than the "real" issue.

The latest "real issue"? The "voter verifiable paper trail".

A "voter-verified paper trail" -- or "voter-verified paper ballot" -- is not a receipt that you carry away from the polling site with you. There has never been a "receipt" for voting -- not with the lever machines, not with punch cards. What the "paper ballot" or "paper trail" or "paper receipt" means is that there is actual paper inside the machine, and that the voter -- that is, the voter with eyesight -- can see the paper inside the machine with a printed out verification of your vote. The paper verification may stay in the machine, or the machine may print out a ballot that you then carry to a box to drop in; in either case, you don't get it to keep. The argument for the paper "trail" is that there will be a "hard copy" of the vote to physically count, in case of the need for a recount. Almost no advocate of this VVPAT ever stops to think that, for someone who cannot see a printout, there's no "voter-verification" with this system for them.

The League of Women Voters' decision June 15 to change its organization's support for touch-screen voting to only those machines that would produce a "voter verifiable paper trail" shows how issues jostle for ascendancy in the public mind. The actual wording of the resolution said that the group would support "voting systems and procedures that are secure, accurate, recountable and accessible" [italics ours]. But news headlines said only that the "League of Women Voters rescinds its support of touchscreen voting," (Contra Costa (CA). Times). "League Of Women Voters Drops Support Of Electronic Ballots," ran the headline at San Francisco's KTVU.com. "League of Women Voters drops support of e-vote machines," read the headline in USA Today.

Though the resolution's wording indicates that the League is still concerned about "access", most people do not think of access for voters who can't independently vote by traditional means when they read the word.

To the New York Times's Katherine Seelye, the terms "secure, accurate, recountable and accessible" were, she wrote, "code words for paper trails." (Seelye's June 15 profile of California secretary of state Kevin Shelley reported that the Democrat had "gained national notice for his skepticism toward touch-screen voting and his insistence that voters be able to look at a paper record inside the voting booth to verify their ballots.")

Security concerns may be valid -- or they may be overblown. In either case, the issue of "access" to voting is not of enough concern to those raising alarms to cause them to put their concerns on the back burner in order to ensure the civil rights of a largely-disenfranchised group, namely voters who need accessible touchscreen machines to vote independently and secretly.

"Security": disability activists once again come up against the old "safety" mantra that trumps access. Again, as always.

"The move to provide paper trails is being fought by a handful of influential advocates for the disabled, who complain that requiring verifiable paper records will slow the adoption of accessible electronic voting machines," wrote the New York Times in a June 11 editorial, "The Disability Lobby and Voting."

The National Federation of the Blind, it wrote, has "been championing controversial voting machines that do not provide a paper trail," attesting to their "security and accuracy," which the group has no expertise to do, it said.

"What's even more troubling is that the group has accepted a $1 million gift for a new training institute from Diebold, the machines' manufacturer, which put the testimonial on its Web site."

The editorial, appearing a few days before the League of Women Voters' decision to change its stance on e-voting, noted that the League's original opposition to the paper trail was "in part because it has accepted the disability groups' arguments."

The editorial went on to note that the American Association of People with Disabilities had given Sen. Christopher Dodd, "who has actively opposed paper trails," a Justice for All award, and that Dodd had "in turn" appointed Dickson [Jim Dickson, AAPD Vice President of Governmental Affairs] to the Board of Advisors of the Election Assistance Commission, "where he will be in a good position to oppose paper trails at the federal level" and said that Dickson had told the Times that AAPD had gotten "$26,000 from voting machine companies this year."

"Disability-rights groups have been clouding the voting machine debate by suggesting that the nation must choose between accessible voting and verifiable voting," said the Times.

The AAPD's Vote Project has indeed been pushing accessible voting; Vote Project head Dickson has been outspoken in support of it and has been instrumental in filing a number of lawsuits nationwide to force state and county election officials to implement the accessible voting machine requirements of HAVA.


Dan Tokaji, a civil rights attorney who teaches at Ohio State University, offers an especially good blog: Equal Vote, "devoted to discussion of civil rights, voting technology and related topics, including the controversy over electronic voting -- with special attention to the voting rights of people of color, non-English proficient voters and people with disabilities. Read Tokaji's blog on the Times's June 11 editorial.

Many links to information about accessible voting can be found at the AAPD Vote Project webpage.
Michael Ian Shamos, with Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science, offers an academic but thorough online assessment of Paper v. Electronic Voting Records.

Photos and written descriptions of types of accessible voting machine can be found at the Trace Center website and at the American Foundation for the Blind website. Diebold's website also has information about their voting machines.

The problem is that AAPD also made a stupid, or naive, decision to accept money from the voting machine industry. Why the group did not realize that such funding had the potential to compromise their appearance of objectivity is anybody's guess. It can't be that they didn't care; it's more likely that it never occurred to them. Now it has come back to bite them, at a time when a national voice calling for accessible voting is more needed than ever. Whether justified or not, the group has lost credibility.

Longtime California disability vote activist Shawn Casey O'Brien says he was "dismayed" by the editorial -- not only by the Times's position, but on its revelations that AAPD had taken money from accessible voting machine manufacturers.

"The actions of AAPD and Jim Dickson have severely undermined the disability community's credibility on an issue affecting the voting rights of millions of disabled, senior and non English speaking voters," he wrote on his "Truth to Power" blog. He criticized the group on its inside-the-beltway mentality and accused it of being too close to Diebold. O'Brien, a member of the California Secretary of State's Taskforce on Touch Screen Voting, says the Task Force had problems last winter with Diebold, and at the time asked AAPD to distance itself from the manufacturer. O'Brien writes that he was told he was "overreacting." (Read O'Brien's blog -- click on June 14, 2004.)

In a mass email to disability advocates discussing the Times editorial, Dickson sought to deflect criticism by reminding readers that "This controversy is about the civil rights of people with disabilities, guaranteed under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Help America Vote Act."

He continued, "In California alone, one million blind and disabled voters have had accessible voting machines removed for this fall's election because of the paper trail theory that has been championed by the New York Times . . . . Counties and states all across the nation have canceled plans to offer accessible voting this November. Instead of accessible touchscreens, counties and states have purchased inaccessible optical scan machines, which are computers that count votes."

The Times, wrote Dickson, "ignores the fact that optical scan machines are subject to the same theoretic attacks as touchscreens."

"Computers have been used to count ballots for 40 years without one documented case of accidental or malicious election tampering [via computer]," Dickson wrote.

The American Association of People with Disabilities' Vote Project has been aggressive in voting access suits. Read more about the
DC Lawsuit
FL Lawsuit
CA Lawsuit

"The 'voter verified paper trail' is a Ph.D. thesis," Dickson wrote, meaning that it is only an idea at this juncture. "Paper trail touchscreens have never been used in a major election anywhere in the country. A paper trail touchscreen has never been purchased in this country for use in an election. There are no federal standards for such devices. The legal body charged with setting the standards is not yet formed.

Dickson's fear that the call for security via paper trails will hold up -- and possibly wipe out -- any hope for accessible voting in the near future is a valid one. "The last time the federal government set standards, it took 5 years," he wrote. Under the Help America Vote Act, he continued, "states and counties can legally spend HAVA funds on other election improvements. By January 1, 2006, there must be one accessible voting machine in every polling place. What happens if the money has already been spent?"

Although it was true that "voting manufacturers contributed $26,000 to support AAPD's leadership gala" this year, he admitted, "AAPD has never received a contribution from Diebold," ("Several recent studies have raised serious doubts about the company, and California has banned more than 14,000 Diebold machines from being used this November because of doubts about their reliability," said the Times editorial.)

Dickson points out, as do a number of computer experts, that there has been no real problem with the machines, despite the hysterics -- and that in any case the more traditional means of balloting have proven to be flawed, time after time. "California's own touchscreen parallel testing report from the March 2, 2004 primary showed that the state's touchscreens functioned flawlessly," said Dickson's email. "Other California data shows punchcards failed to count 6 percent of all votes cast. Los Angeles County's voting system fails to count 7 percent of all votes cast. Optical scan voting systems fail to count at least 2.7 percent of all votes cast. These are all paper-based voting systems.

"Touchscreens fail to count [only] 1.5 percent of votes cast (some touchscreen systems are as low as 7/10 of 1 percent )."

His email did not explain where he obtained this data, but did refer readers to the online writings of Dan Tokaji, "a civil rights attorney who teaches at Ohio State University" whose blogs "are an outstanding resource." Tokaji's blog, Equal Vote, which Tokaji describes as "devoted to discussion of civil rights, voting technology and related topics, including the controversy over electronic voting -- with special attention to the voting rights of people of color, non-English proficient voters and people with disabilities," is online at http://equalvote.blogspot.com/. His June 1 blog has links to some data that substantiates what Dickson is saying here. (Read Tokaji's blog on the Times's June 11 editorial.)

As the issue devolves into a spy-vs.-spy battle of dueling experts, the real losers are -- again -- disabled would-be voters. "The question that matters to me is: Will it be one more year, or ten, before polls are accessible?" asks Tischer. "Unfortunately, the answer remains unacceptably fuzzy. It will only be at some undetermined time in the future that we folks with disabilities can all go to the polls and cast our votes alongside our neighbors."

The fact that these cries about "security" continue to delay access to the vote for disabled people does not faze too many folks in this nation. Most people -- progressives included -- do not seem to feel that a disabled person's lack of access to a truly secret ballot -- whether due to barriers for a wheelchair user or barriers for a blind person -- is the same as, say, the poll tax or literacy test required of blacks in the 1940s.

"[An i]naccessible voting place proves nothing at all," said Justice Antonin Scalia, during oral arguments in Tennessee v. Lane in January. "It just proves that the state did not go out of its way to make it easy for the handicapped [sic] to vote, as it should, but as it is not constitutionally required to do. To simply say many voting places are inaccessible proves nothing at all. . . . They're not saying you can't vote, they're saying we don't have facilities for you . . . "

Tischer thinks she has a solution: "Do away with polling places altogether until every citizen eligible to vote can participate through equal access. We can all use absentee ballots, offered in alternative formats and languages. If I can trust my vote to the mails, so can everyone else.

"And if anyone objects to those of us with special needs, that we ask too much too soon, do what I do: Drop the 'special needs' language -- just say 'equal needs.' "

Posted June 17, 2004.

Mary Johnson edits Ragged Edge. She is the author of Make Them Go Away: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Reeve and The Case Against Disability Rights.

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