By DEBORA GILBERT
The Columbia Paper
This 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.
The 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 the state.
“Every 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.
The 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.
“That is the most asked question. We get calls more for that than not,” said county Election Commissioner Don Kline (R).
“Call 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 audience.
Next, 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.
Ms. 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.
As 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.
“Empowerment 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.
At 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.
She 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.
Her 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.
Columbia County is the first county to benefit from Ms. Cohen’s services.
During this process here, she said, she is fine tuning her plan, which she will offer in the future to other counties.
As 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 successful.
“We need to build the confidence and comfort level of disabled voters, and to increase poll workers’ comfort in assisting people with disabilities,” she said.
“I 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 one.
“This 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 to everyone.”
In 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.”
Ms. 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.
To 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.