Wednesday, September 12, 2007

It Sounds Crazy to Us

As we previously noted, the State Board of Elections has determined that all polling places must have at least one accessible unit for the 2008 September primaries. This is good news for many reasons, not least of which is that it should allow many disabled New Yorkers to vote privately and independently in their polling places for the first time.

But now, we’re getting word that the State Board of Elections may be about to make a decision that could lead to worse voting machines for all New Yorkers -- disabled and non-disabled alike.

We hear that at their August 28 meeting, the Board suggested that it might allow DREs (also known as “touch screens”) to be “converted” into “ballot marking devices” and serve as the accessible unit in polling places. Ballot marking devices, like ES&S’s Automark, and those made by Avante and Populex, are computers that will fill out paper ballots for voters. In the case of the Automark and other ballot marking devices, the computers can read back the ballot to blind voters before they cast them.

The idea of using DREs to serve as ballot marking devices strikes us as more than a little crazy. If we understand correctly, the idea would be to turn off the counter on the DREs (DREs are designed to count votes directly, as they are cast on the computer screen) and use the “paper trail” produced by the DRE as a ballot – to be counted (by hand?) later.

Aside from the fact that the current generation of DREs were not designed to be ballot marking devices (and have never been used as ballot marking devices in any election before) – we can’t understand how such DREs could possibly serve as “accessible” units.

First, we are unaware of any DRE that currently “reads back” the paper trail to blind voters. So, the State Board would seem to be sanctioning a unit for disabled voters that makes it impossible for blind voters to independently verifiy that their votes have been cast correctly.

Second, as we have shown in our studies of voting systems, the kind of “full face” DREs the State Board has mandated are confusing to voters and lead to many mistakes. Worse still, they are particularly confusing to voters with cognitive disabilities.

So just to be clear: the State Board seems to be on the verge of sanctioning the potential use of machines that are MORE DIFFICULT for blind voters and voters with congnitive disabilities to use as polling place “accessible” units.

There are dozens of reasons to be opposed to the idea of allowing counties to purchase DREs as their accessible ballot marking devices (they are ridiculously expensive, cumbersome, have never been used as ballot marking devices before, etc.) – but surely the most troubling has to be that THEY WON’T BE ACCESSIBLE to a significant portion of the State’s disabled population.

UPDATE: Bo Lipari of New Yorkers for Verified Voting tipped us off to this. We understand from him that NYPIRG, the League of Women Voters of New York State and the American Council for the Blind will be joining his organization in sending a formal objection to the NY SBOE.

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