New voting machines must help all
Nevada County, along with the rest of the nation, must implement the Help America Vote Act. The act calls for, among other things, new voting machines that can be used by voters with disabilities to cast votes in a private and independent manner. This is a significant development in civil rights for people with disabilities.
People with disabilities comprise more than 18 percent of voting age residents in Nevada County, and yet 70 percent of them do not vote regularly. Laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act, which regulates polling place accessibility along with HAVA, provide strong incentives for people with disabilities to participate as full members of our democracy. Americans place a high value on the right to cast a vote in a manner that provides for complete privacy and finally, with HAVA, that right includes voters with disabilities.
Nevada County’s Clerk-Recorder has expressed her desire to have a variety of options when selecting a new voting system for Nevada County voters. That is indeed a desirable scenario. It has been a slow process to move the various voting systems through the federal testing process and then through California’s stringent certification process.
In the Fall of 2003, then-Secretary of State Kevin Shelley required voter-verified audit trails on touch-screen systems. Last year, California passed a law allowing the voter-verified paper trail to be used as the official ballot in the event of a recount. These measures to increase voter confidence present additional challenges to voting system developers.
Nevada County voters deserve certified, HAVA-compliant voting systems. However, there is no system available now that allows everyone regardless of the type of disability to vote in a manner that is both completely independent and private.
While the desire to wait for a perfect system is understandable, it simply can’t be done anymore than Nevada County can choose to skip elections until that system is available. Voters’ right to independently and privately cast their vote and be assured that each vote counts is paramount. So, in the absence of a perfect system, what is Nevada County to do?
In December, the county released a request for proposals seeking a vendor to provide a lawful, accessible system for Nevada County. One vendor (ES&S, maker of AutoMark) responded.
Nevertheless, desiring more options, the clerk-recorder investigated a device called Vote-PAD that claims to be a system that would not require federal testing or state certification. The system is a crude stencil that prevents a voter from coloring outside the lines on a typical ballot while a tape recorder plays lengthy instructions and describes the contests for voters with visual disabilities. It offers little to the voter with dexterity disabilities as the voter must still grasp a pen. Disability groups around the country have pointed out significant flaws with the Vote-PAD and the California Secretary of State’s office has issued letters saying Vote-PAD must be approved before being used in any election.
FREED Center for Independent Living advocates equal access for persons with disabilities and works to increase the community’s capacity to include persons with disabilities in all aspects of community life. Because voting is at the core of each citizen’s civil rights, we have followed HAVA compliance closely and worked to insure that Nevada County’s efforts to comply with HAVA provide the most accessibility possible with what choices are currently available. We have strongly opposed the noncertified, limited-use Vote-PAD and encouraged the county to follow through with the appropriate path it chose to seek out a certified system that served the most people.
County staff have worked diligently to pursue a contract for the ES&S AutoMark, a ballot-marking device that marks a typical paper ballot using a touch screen and has speech output to assist voters with vision disabilities in marking their ballot and verifying their vote. This ballot-marking device provides for a private and independent vote by people with a wide variety of disabilities.
If Nevada County pursues an alternative direction, the system chosen must have successfully completed both federal testing and state certification. FREED will continue to advocate for such a system that allows all voters an equal opportunity to vote privately and independently.
Ann Guerra is the executive director of FREED Center for Independent Living in Grass Valley and chair of the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers.
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