By Jared S. Hopkins
Capital News Service
Wednesday, March 8, 2006
WASHINGTON - As the Maryland House nears a decision on requiring the state's voting machines to issue paper ballot records, organizations representing disabled voters apparently disagree on what -- if anything -- should be done.
Several prominent advocacy groups for the blind and deaf support paper records, but others -- including an organization that received a $1 million grant from Maryland's voting machine manufacturer -- have decried the bills in both the Senate and the House, where a vote is expected Thursday.
The National Federation of the Blind and American Association of People with Disabilities opposed the paper-record requirement during hearings. Both groups, which received money from voting machine companies in the past, contend new machines would not accommodate disabled individuals.
The call for paper trails, which would serve as the official ballot and be used to settle disputes, has escalated in recent weeks as Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich declared he'd lost confidence in the current Diebold touch-screen machines. Diebold has been under fire for years from critics who charge its machines are insecure and vulnerable to hackers.
The pending legislation calls for a one-year lease of optical-scan machines and Automark machines, which would produce the proper records required under the bill. The estimated cost is $11 million, up from original estimates of about $6 million, according to Delegate Elizabeth Bobo, D-Howard.
Automark machines, produced by Election Systems & Software, are touch-screen devices that mark paper ballots after they are inserted. They provide both headphones for the vision-impaired and a puff tube for those unable to touch the touch pad. But unlike the current Diebold touch-screen machines, the Automark does not store votes; instead the paper-ballot is inserted into a different machine -- the optical-scanner -- and then counted.
Bob Kerr, vice president of The American Council of the Blind of Maryland, once tested voting machines for Compliance Research Group and said his first-hand knowledge led to his push for paper-trails.
"Anyone who's blind is probably an expert who can tell you what's accessible to them," he said.
Jim Gaschle of the National Federation of the Blind, however, insists that the Automark is not "accessible" to the disabled and does not provide for "multi-page ballots," an allegation that an ES&S representative called "false." Gaschle said current machines help disabled voters and new machines would not.
"The paper-trail is anti-disability voting, frankly," said Gaschle, the federation's executive director for strategic initiatives. "We don't believe that paper-trails ensure any greater security than electronic voting machines."
NFB received a $1 million grant in 2001 from Diebold to settle NFB's lawsuit charging that Diebold ATM machines did not accommodate disabled customers. Gaschle said the grant came before Diebold's involvement in the election industry, and the organization is no longer receiving money from Diebold.
Observers are skeptical about the grant's importance. The grant "looks like extortion," according to Bev Harris, author of "Black Box Voting: Ballot Tampering in the 21st Century," but she said there is not enough public information to draw any conclusion.
"The patterns of persuasion nowadays are mostly legal," she said. "They may not be ethical, but they would be legal."
Time constraints and costs may render the whole discussion moot, critics say, because they make a new voting system impossible by the September elections. The state has invested $90 million in the Diebold machines.
"It seems to us like it's a waste of money to buy that technology and then throw that technology out," said Andy Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities. "We use computers to control nuclear weapons, to control banks, to control a lot of things, I don't see why (this is different.)"
His organization, too, accepted a contribution from ES&S, but Imparato said it was just $6,000, not the $26,000 reported by the New York Times.
The Maryland Disability Law Center said it is neutral on the issue but agreed with Imparato that legislation is being rushed, and said it would like to see more studies on the issue.
"Our concern is they are going to rush into a system without getting input from the disability community," said managing attorney Alyssa Fieo. "We're talking a lot of money as well."
Gary Norman, president of the Maryland Area Guide Dog Users Inc., said the groups that are opposed to the paper-trail legislation do not promote "good blindness policy."
The Maryland bill doesn't specify instructions for disabled voters, except that voters be able to cast votes "by visual and non-visual means," and that at least one optical scan machine be in each precinct.
"They (opponents) just maybe are not attuned to why this bill would best for our needs," Norman said. "It has the right language in it."
Copyright © 2006 University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism. All rights reserved.