Critics slam plan for disabled voting equipment



September 19, 2007


ALBANY - State officials are considering an expensive stopgap to comply next year with a federal law mandating that all polling places have a voting machine equipped for the disabled, though county leaders and reformers have said the plan is unworkable and could further delay the modernization of voting systems.


The plan, to be discussed here tomorrow by the Board of Elections, is necessary because New York missed a Jan. 1, 2006, deadline to install equipment for the disabled at all polling sites. With the current lever voting machines, the blind cannot read the ballot and people in wheelchairs can't reach some levers.


As a temporary remedy, officials last year rolled out special ballot-marking machines - usually one per county but more were available on Long Island - to be used through February's presidential primary. But a federal judge now is asking for a new solution, to be ready for the September 2008 primary. The plan, estimated to cost $40 million, is due by Sept. 28.


The dustup is the latest hurdle in New York's tortured path toward complying with the federal Help America Vote Act, adopted after the Florida debacle in the 2000 presidential election. New York's late response has sparked a Justice Department lawsuit.


There's general agreement that the lever voting machines will still be in place next year, in part because testing of their replacements has stalled. However, some election officials fear the judge won't accept another half-measure on balloting for the disabled.


The federal law "still requires one fully accessible voting system at each polling place ... if you can comply, you have to comply," said Douglas Kellner, a Democrat and co-chairman of the elections board.


Last month, the state board authorized county election boards to purchase accessible machines for every polling site. County officials cried foul, saying the equipment may not be permitted after 2008 and few disabled voters have used the special devices currently in place.


"This plan is ridiculous. ... It won't help anybody," said Nassau Elections Commissioner William Biamonte, a Democrat. Many disabled voters have requested absentee ballots rather than travel to use a voting machine, he added.


Putting one accessible voting machine in each of Nassau's 400 polling places would cost $3 million, or $15,000 per voter based on last year's turnout. In Suffolk, the price tag would be $4 million for 352 sites, or $47,000 per voter.


County opposition has produced a split on the state elections board. But Kellner insisted he would present the one-machine-per-polling-place plan for the judge's consideration.


Today, 11 advocacy groups will hold a news conference here criticizing the plan as "dangerous" for allegedly permitting uncertified ATM-like voting machines to be considered for use next year.


Advocates for the disabled such as Susan Cohen of the state Independent Living Council urged election officials to look beyond equipment purchases to voter education and training for poll workers. She said, "If we get all these new machines and people don't know about them or how to use them, we haven't increased accessibility."


Copyright 2007, Newsday Inc.