fall’s election will mark the second year that Columbia County voters will have
a choice of voting machines: the traditional lever machine, possibly in use for
the last time, or the new Image Cast ballot marking device (BMD), which has
special features that can help people with disabilities.
BMD machines are required by the federal Help America Vote Act passed in 2002
and are now available to anyone who wants to use them in every polling site in
citizen has the right to vote privately and independently,” said Columbia
County Election Commissioner Virginia Martin (D) at an October 17 training
session held for local election inspectors in a large lecture hall at Columbia-Greene
Community College. The session was intended to help anticipate and solve
potential problems ahead of Election Day.
first subject at the session was the old lever machines. If a voter goes inside
the booth, looks at the choices, and decides not to vote, the machine needs to
be reset by an inspector, who should know to pull a hidden lever.
is the most asked question. We get calls more for that than not,” said
county Election Commissioner Don Kline (R).
the Board of Elections if problems arise. We have more phone lines now,” said
Ms. Martin, who received gentle applause and murmurs of appreciation from the
Ms. Martin introduced consultant Susan Cohen, who was hired by the Board of
Elections “to help us meet our HAVA obligations and to do the right thing for
people with disabilities.” HAVA is the acronym for the Help America Vote Act.
In hiring Ms. Cohen, who has expertise in voting issues and 20 years of
experience working with and advocating for persons with disabilities, the
county may have placed itself far ahead of the pack in reaching out to voters
who may need the accessible voting devices. Ms. Cohen’s fee of around $16,000
will be paid by HAVA education funds from the state.
Cohen has advocated for persons with disabilities at voting act hearings and
state election commission meetings. She recently worked as a consultant for
Dominion, the manufacturer of the BMD used in this county, providing feedback
from voters with disabilities to help the company improve the way the machines
work. During the process, engineers were able to reduce the time sight impaired
people needed to mark a ballot from 40 minutes to 10.
a child, the Albany native says she hung out at the Capitol and nearby government
buildings just for fun (her family lived nearby). She became fascinated with
the legislative process, and developed a lifetime interest in politics. Among
her accomplishments is a training program she developed for people with
disabilities that helped more than a dozen become board members for
organizations that serve their needs.
is the thread of all the projects I’ve been involved in helping people have a
voice,” said Ms. Cohen in a phone conversation last week.
the Saturday meeting, Ms. Cohen advised election personnel of a poster that
will hang at every polling place reminding people of the BMD option. “If you
don’t know it’s an option, you won’t know to ask for it,” she said.
also briefed inspectors on how to work with people who have disabilities, alerting
them to a step by step picture book available to inspectors and voters alike
that explains without words how to use the new machine.
ideas for helping people with disabilities vote extend beyond the polling place
itself to include transportation. “If people can’t get to the polling places,
we’ll still have a low turnout,” she said.
County is the first county to benefit from Ms. Cohen’s services.
this process here, she said, she is fine tuning her plan, which she will offer
in the future to other counties.
part of her work for the county, she ran a outreach program at COARC, where
voters were able to practice voting on a BMDs, an exercise she called very
need to build the confidence and comfort level of disabled voters, and to
increase poll workers’ comfort in assisting people with disabilities,” she
took two training courses, but this is Greek to me,” said one election
inspector who still sounded unsure of the new technology. But poll workers were
told that 22 poll site specialists trained in how to use the new machines will
be on hand Election Day, most serving only two polling places, and some just
is not your VCR,” said Richard Washburn a technician with the Board of
Elections. It’s actually very easy to use. It’s designed to make voting accessible
a word of encouragement to election inspectors, Ms. Cohen advised, “Don’t let
this spook you. It will go a lot smoother than you are imagining.”
Martin was profuse in her thanks to the election inspectors. “You are really
important. You are the reason we are able to have elections at all, she said.
be an election inspector, one must be a resident of Columbia County a
registered voter here, speak English, and not be running for office or relative
of any district candidate.