The New York Times

December 23, 2007


Tools to Help Disabled Vote Are on Way



The city’s Board of Elections said on Saturday that it would put devices to allow disabled voters to cast ballots in every polling location by next September’s Congressional and legislative primaries.


The promise came two days after a federal judge castigated state election officials for what he described as “paralysis” and “incompetence” in failing to meet the requirements of the Help America Vote Act of 2002, known as HAVA.


The law, which was enacted in response to the presidential election confusion of 2000, provides states with federal funds to modernize voting machines and requires every polling location to have at least one ballot-casting system accessible to people with disabilities.


New York is the only state yet to comply, prompting the United States Department of Justice to sue it last year.


On Thursday, Judge Gary Sharpe of Federal District Court in Albany agreed to a state plan that would meet the accessibility portion of the law by the September 2008 primary elections and the law’s other provisions by the fall of 2009. He gave the state’s Board of Elections until Jan. 4 to submit a blueprint showing exactly how that would be accomplished.


City election officials jumped ahead of the state on Saturday by agreeing to buy 1,800 ballot-marking devices. The city will put one in each of its 1,369 polling locations and will place the rest as demonstrators in senior centers and other locations where people can get accustomed to them before going to the polls.


The devices provide disabled voters with audio and visual aids and allow them to cast paper ballots using a touch screen or keyboard; a tube they can use to sip and puff air; or foot paddles. The ballots are then sealed and later hand-counted along with absentee ballots.


Election officials said that buying and storing the devices and training workers how to use them could cost up to $40 million. Some or all of that expense may be covered by the $220 million in federal money the state received to carry out the new law.


Government watchdog groups and advocates for the disabled praised the move Saturday. But election officials warned that the devices might have to be scrapped after next year’s elections if the state elections board does not certify them as meeting the law’s demands. Local election boards have been frustrated by a long delay by the state in issuing a list of acceptable systems.


“It’s entirely possible these machines will not meet the new certifications standard,” said Gregory C. Soumas, a commissioner with the city’s Board of Elections. But Bo Lipari, executive director of the election watchdog group New Yorkers for Verified Voting, said that the chance of that happening seemed small because the devices could be easily incorporated with any optical-scanning devices the state is likely to approve. “My group has been saying for a long time that this is a good way to phase in HAVA compliance,” Mr. Lipari said.


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