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Otsego County, NY




Survey: Disabled prefer absentee ballots

By Tom Grace


Cooperstown News Bureau


People on the Otsego County Board of Elections’ list of voters with permanent medical disabilities want to vote by absentee ballot, not come to the polls — no matter what new and expensive equipment is installed for them.


"We have 263 people on that list, and we sent letters to them to see what they think," Lucinda Jarvis, the county’s Democratic deputy elections commissioner, said Friday.


The result?


"We heard from about 90 percent, and they said they’d much rather continue voting by absentee ballot," Jarvis said. "Some said, ’Please, don’t take our absentee ballots away.’ Others said, ’You can install new equipment, but I’m not going to use it. I want to vote by absentee ballot."’


Jarvis said the letters were sent out to help the county respond to questions posed by the state Board of Elections, which is trying to satisfy federal demands to change the way people in the state vote.


On March 1, the federal Justice Department sued New York state for not moving quickly enough to install handicapped-accessible voting machines in polling places. The federal government is trying to force the state to comply with the Help America Vote Act, which was passed after the controversial 2000 presidential election.


That federal act was billed as addressing voting irregularity problems that arose in Florida during the 2000 election, but also contains provisions for handicapped accessibility. In New York, progress on installing equipment was delayed when the state Legislature ordered that the machines must be much larger than those used in most states so that all candidates running for office can be seen at once on the screen.


Manufacturers have produced computerized machines called direct recording electronic devices that satisfy this requirement and look like rear-projection televisions. Proponents of these machines tout their ease of use, and opponents say they can be rigged to count incorrectly and are subject to breaking down.


An alternative system would have voters fill out paper ballots, which are scanned and counted by computers. Proponents of this system note that the paper ballots themselves can be counted if the results are suspect; opponents have said the system is cumbersome for officials and not easy to use for those with disabilities.


The price of each system is about $8,000 to $10,000, manufacturers have said.


By Tuesday, the state Board of Elections must present a plan in federal court for complying with federal mandates. One plan under consideration would have counties install a few handicapped-accessible machines, with a more-complete overhaul coming next year.


Jarvis said the county Board of Elections has proposed to the state that it will install one DRE in its office in Middlefield, or alternatively, install two ballot-marking devices that work with scanners. This would allow a voter with disabilities to travel to Middlefield to vote, or perhaps to Oneonta, as well, if two devices are installed.


Jarvis said the recent survey makes it clear there will be no line of voters queuing up at the machines.


Chris Zachmeyer, executive director for the Catskill Center for Independence, agreed that this stop-gap measure is not helpful for people with disabilities. However, she cautioned that a survey of 263 voters with disabilities does not really measure attitudes among the larger population.


"Trust me, there are a lot more than 263 people with disabilities in Otsego County, and they want to go to the polls with their family, friends and neighbors and vote like everyone else," she said. "Voting is a social event as well as a civic responsibility."


Zachmeyer said that rather than implementing a partial and inadequate upgrade of voting machines, the federal government should allow the state and counties to "do the job right next year."


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