The New York Times

July 21, 2007


Accessibility Isn’t Only Hurdle in Voting System Overhaul



Democrats in Congress who are trying to redesign the nation’s voting system generally share the same goals: an affordable, easy-to-use system with durable paper ballots that can be used by the disabled without help from poll workers.


But yesterday, as House leaders failed for a second day to reach agreement on the outlines of a new system, the tension reflected in those competing needs was clear. The desire to make every voting machine accountable is running head-on into other needs, from the desires of the disabled to the budgets of states and localities.


Gabriele Stabile for The New York Time

A technician at the New York Board of Elections with a touch-screen machine, in which a voter-verifiable paper trail feeds directly into a ballot box.


Given the tensions, voting analysts say, the decision disclosed Thursday by Democratic leaders to put off the most sweeping changes until 2012 — four years later than planned — was easy. Congressional leaders are reluctant to tell states to junk hundreds of millions of dollars of relatively new voting equipment until it is clear when better technology will emerge.


But questions also arose yesterday about other aspects of a proposed compromise now being negotiated. Voting experts criticized a stopgap proposal to add spool-like printers to thousands of computerized touch-screen machines for 2008 and 2010, saying it would not be feasible in some states.


Some critics also said that efforts to guarantee equal access to disabled voters could slow a broad shift from touch-screen machines to optical-scan systems, which use sturdier paper ballots filled out by the voters themselves. Prompted by growing concerns about the reliability and security of the touch screens, about half of the nation’s counties now use the scanners, and most analysts had thought that any federal legislation would fuel this trend.


Voting Equipment, County by County


But aides to Representative Rush D. Holt, Democrat of New Jersey and the original sponsor of the bill, said yesterday that language inserted by House leaders seemed to expand the guarantees to disabled voters in a way that could discourage other states and localities from buying the scanners.


Mr. Holt has described these provisions as a major sticking point. House officials said that he discussed possible changes yesterday with Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and the majority leader, Representative Steny H. Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland. The leaders want to iron out the differences before bringing the bill to the floor.


Under current practice, disabled people, including the blind, can use special devices, equipped with audio files listing the candidates in each race, to mark optical-scan ballots without assistance. Many, however, need to have poll workers drop the ballots into the scanners.


Federal law requires that polling places provide disabled voters with enough accommodations to enable them to vote independently. Counties in up to 35 states have generally viewed the ballot-marking devices as meeting that requirement.


Jim Dickson, a lobbyist for the American Association of People with Disabilities, said his and other disability-rights groups believe that voting systems should include a means for the ballots to be sent to the scanner automatically. Mr. Dickson, whose group prefers the touch-screens, said the lobbyists asked Mr. Hoyer’s staff to add language to the bill that would help do that.


But other voting activists said if that wording survives, it could force some jurisdictions to back away from the optical-scan systems.


“Since this device has been vetted in so many states, and a lot of disabled voters have been fine with it, it doesn’t make sense for federal legislation to come along that could reverse the trend toward optical-scan ballots,” said Warren Stewart, senior project director for VerifiedVoting .org, a group that favors use of the scanners.


Under the Help America Vote Act, passed in 2002, the federal government has spent more than $3 billion to help states and counties modernize their voting systems, installing tens of thousands of touch screens and scanners.


But since then, growing concerns about possible tampering and computer malfunctions, particularly with the touch screens, have led to calls for another overhaul, and a number of states, including Florida, have either shifted to the optical scanners or announced plans to do so by next year’s elections.


All told, 28 states have passed laws requiring some kind of paper records through which voters can verify that their ballots were properly recorded and that can be used for recounts. Other states have bought small, cash-register-style printers to provide a backup record for their touch-screen votes.


Under the proposed House compromise, hundreds of counties, in 20 states, that do not use any kind of paper records would have to add the capability for the 2008 and 2010 elections.


House officials said this week that most of those counties could simply add the small, spool-like printers to their voting machines, while waiting for manufacturers to develop better technology by 2012.


But voting experts said yesterday that the voting machines in several of the states, like Delaware and some counties in Kentucky and Tennessee, probably could not be refitted with printers, and those states would have to make larger changes by next year. Maryland decided recently to try to shift from touch screens to optical scanners in 2010, so it would seem wasteful for the state to have to buy touch-screen printers for only the 2008 election, the experts said.


Voting industry officials said that they could supply enough printers as needed for next year. But the printers often cost more than $1,000 apiece, and they said some jurisdictions could decide to skip the temporary upgrades and make larger changes immediately.


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