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Disabled concerned after county fails to secure new voting equipment

Nevada County’s inability to comply with the Help America Vote Act by the June 6 primary election will make it difficult for some to vote, according to some local residents.

“I’d like to be able to vote like everyone else,” said Gary Engelking, 48, a Grass Valley resident who has limited use of his hands.

Engelking said he tested the Automark voting system, a HAVA-certified machine with a touch-screen that marks the ballot and has other features to help voters with disabilities. He said he “thought it was great” for allowing him to vote independently, as his disabilities prevent him from using an absentee ballot.



Nevada County Clerk-Recorder Kathleen Smith announced at an April 25 Board of Supervisors meeting that she was rejecting a contract to put an Automark voting system at every county polling place, citing the contract’s lack of provisions for upgrading equipment among her reasons.




Her decision and explanation for not buying the equipment has left some people perplexed.

“It was hard for me to get a clear picture of what she was saying,” Nate Beason, district 1 supervisor and board chair, said after the meeting.

Nevada County was allocated $1.7 million in state and federal funds to comply with HAVA, so no county money is needed to purchase the voting equipment.

Jennifer Kerns, spokesperson for the Secretary of State, said rules regarding HAVA funds were recently made more flexible, allowing the money to be used for training polling workers and using equipment such as forklifts to transport voting devices.

Only “a handful” of California counties have failed to meet requirements of HAVA, the federal law passed in 2002, Kerns said, estimating seven or eight of California’s 58 counties have yet to comply, such as Nevada.

HAVA requires polling places to have voting systems that are accessible to people with disabilities, in addition to a statewide database of voter registration and a paper record of ballots.

Compliance with the act was mandated by Jan. 1, 2006, and the states of New York, and, more recently, Alabama, have been sued by the Department of Justice for failing to meet what is now federal law.

Smith said she will have a single Votepad system, which is not HAVA-certified, and which representatives from the FREED Center for Independent Living said poses problems for those with dexterity and visual impairments, at the Elections Office on Willow Valley Road in Nevada City. FREED representatives said that was not a location conducive for disabled access.

Engelking called the Votepad system “cumbersome” and difficult to use.

Patrick Keneally, 51, of Newtown, describes himself as a “low-maintenance” quadriplegic, with limited use of hands, arms and legs.

He prefers the convenience of using an absentee ballot and questioned the large amount of money being spent toward helping what may be only a few voters.

“I just feel it’s a lot of money … when the absentee is a reasonable accommodation,” said Keneally, adding that he didn’t “know why the county would stall” given that state and federal funds have already been allocated to make polling places accessible for people with disabilities.

Seventeen percent of Nevada County is classified as disabled, said Ana Acton of FREED, although she did not know the number of disabled voters who couldn’t vote with an absentee ballot but would be able to with HAVA-certified equipment, such as Automark.

Acton emphasized, however, the importance of giving people equal rights to use the polls, which many voters prefer.

“Is it OK to turn away one person?” Acton asked, adding that many people would benefit from having HAVA-certified equipment at polling places.

Nicki Bowden, 32, of Grass Valley uses a wheelchair, which she said prevents her from voting at the polls, so she votes absentee instead.

“I would like there to be accessible voting machines. If there were, I would probably go there to (the polls to) vote,” Bowden said.

Nevada County “should have been compliant a long time ago — machines and polling places, too,” she said.

To reach the staff writer Josh Singer, e-mail joshs@theunion.com or call 477-4234.


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