Thursday, September 14, 2006

An Important First Step but a Long Way to Go

Tuesday’s primary didn’t bring many upsets, but it did mark an important first for New York: this was the first election in which many disabled voters were able to cast a secret ballot. The Help America Vote Act ("HAVA") mandated that states provide handicap accessible voting machines, and a deal cut between the U.S. Department of Justice and New York State required that one be available in every county for this week’s election (in fact, under HAVA, New York should have had one such machine in every polling place, but the state has been horribly slow in purchasing new machines).

The New York Times reported this morning that 580 citizens of New York City voted using 22 handicap accessible machines. The devices, in addition to having touch screens, are equipped with straw-like mechanisms that allow voters with limited manual dexterity to scroll through options and select candidates by “sipping” and “puffing.” Once the user has voted, the machine prints out a paper ballot that is placed in an envelope and inserted into a ballot box. The response to the new machines from handicapped voters was apparently positive; since Tuesday’s election, the New York Sun, Newsday, Capital News 9, and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle have all profiled disabled individuals who voted independently for the first time in their lives. There were some glitches: WHEC, a local NBC affiliate in Rochester, reported that a blind woman gave up on the handicap accessible voting machine available in Monroe County because the audio system wasn’t turned on. Fortunately, poll workers were able to rectify the problem, and the woman eventually returned to successfully cast her ballot. She expressed frustration but vowed to return in November.

The bigger problem was that handicapped voters were forced to travel such long distances to vote on the accessible machines. There's no telling how many people were disenfranchised as a result, but it probably easily numbers in the thousands. It's a shame that New York's disabled voters bear the brunt of the State's failure to comply with a federal mandate in a timely manner.

Categories: General, Voting

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