Voting: Talking with the Advocates
Jul 24 01:28
Right now the disability community has more influence on issues of national policy than ever before. Our nation’s legislature won’t move forward on voting reform -- an issue affecting all Americans -- without our community’s general approval. The main engine for voting reform is H.R. 811, called “the Holt bill” after its sponsor, Rep. Rush Holt, a Dem from New Jersey. This bill wants every single voting machine in the U.S. to have a paper trail by the 2008 elections. “Paper trail” generally means the machine would be able to spit out a paper record of all tallied votes.
Why are paper-trails a big deal? A type of machine currently being used, called direct-recording electronic, doesn’t allow for independent recounts. Your vote becomes an electric blip, unable to be recounted or audited. And what makes this a disability issue? Well, these DREs have some nifty access features allowing people with such disabilities as quadriplegia to vote privately and independently.
“Wheelchair users should care very much about this issue because if Holt forces a certain type of technology that includes a paper trail, then many are going to have a poll worker coming over and handling their ballot,” says John Herrion, counsel for United Spinal Association. “The accessibility for wheelchair users of these machines is very impressive, it really is. The problem is once that paper ballot comes out of the printer, who’s going to handle it? If the voter can’t handle it, that brings in the poll worker, which brings up privacy issues.”
I’ve heard anecdotes that in some districts everyone hands the printed ballot to a poll worker, and so people with hand disabilities are treated exactly the same as everyone else. But Herrion and other advocates say this doesn’t happen everywhere. “We haven’t endorsed a product because we don’t think it’s there yet,” says Herrion.
United Spinal is neutral on Holt, with a caveat. “We don’t want to get behind it because of some of the realities we see, but we don’t want to lose anything either,” says Herrion -- like whether or not the final bill will allow enough time and money for jurisdictions to install accessible machines with paper trails. And where does United Spinal fall on the integrity issue -- meaning, if the current machines are so flawed that they can’t be trusted to do a legitimate count, then should the disability community delay paper-trail legislation? “It’s a difficult issue to come to consensus on,” says Herrion, diplomatically.
The American Association of People with Disabilities’ vice president of governmental affairs, Jim Dickson, can be called knowledgeable, passionate and committed. But he’s probably not called diplomatic very often. Unlike United Spinal, AAPD flat-out opposes Holt. “I’m very, very skeptical and I think the Holt bill is the worst piece of election legislation that I have seen in 25 years of working on election law,” says Dickson. “It’s not just bad for us, it’s bad for the country.”
Dickson’s skeptical that any paper-based system can be better than DRE machines and that the Holt bill will take access as seriously as it takes security and accuracy. “Let’s be real about it. We know what’s going to happen to people with disabilities,” says Dickson. “They’re not about to buy something that’s accessible six years later when it’s available. It’s been how many years since buses have been accessible? And we still have places that buy inaccessible buses.”
Dickson’s leadership on disability and voting issues is controversial outside of the disability community because of contributions AAPD took from voting machine manufacturers a few years ago. That story broke as part of a June 11, 2004 New York Times editorial and ever since then AAPD has been plagued by accusations that it took money from Diebold, a voting machine manufacturer linked to partisan, conservative contributions -- even though the Times story did not name Diebold as one of AAPD’s contributors.
AAPD receiving donations from voting manufacturers wasn’t just covered in the Times. Here’s what was reported in “Diebold and the Disabled, which ran in Wired News back in 2004:
When asked in April, Jim Dickson, vice president of government affairs for the AAPD, told Wired News his organization had never received money from voting companies. But in June, he told The New York Times the organization had gotten money.
And here’s a small taste of what’s still floating around the blogosphere regarding Dickson and voting machines:
Representatives from those groups [The National Federation for the Blind and AAPD] have testified at hearings and elsewhere to help make the case that their members simply must have computerized voting machines -- with no paper ballots -- or their civil rights will be denied.
What is rarely reported when folks such as the AAPD's Jim Dickson inevitably shows up at these hearings to testify is that the NFB received a contribution of one million dollars from Diebold and Dickson's AAPD has received at least $26,000 from them as well, as reported by the NY Times and others.
Notice how AAPD receiving money from voting manufacturers is now commonly reported as AAPD has received money from Diebold. It’s an interesting morph, but I can’t find definitive proof to support allegations that AAPD took money from Diebold.
As upset as I still am, three years later, that AAPD took money from groups it’s perceived as lobbying for, I can’t imagine Dickson would purposely compromise his long-held and passionate commitment to accessible voting. He’s the real deal, whether you agree with him or not. But it’s important for our community to understand the heat we’re taking on this issue by those who believe, based on the actions of one or two disability organizations, that none of us can be trusted on this issue. These are, generally, the same people who also believe our nation must choose between either machines that accurately count and report our votes or machines that allow ALL citizens to vote.
But after speaking with advocacy groups outside of our own community, I don’t think we’ll be forced to make that choice.
Take People From the American Way, for example. This well-known civil rights group is a major supporter of the Holt bill, and here’s what spokesperson David Becker says about accessibility and over-all voting system security: “I view them as being inseparable. Imagine if they said in order to get a system that is 100 percent secure, let’s take 10 percent of the population out and block them from voting. People will say, ‘no way.’ But we’ll say, how about a group that’s already largely disenfranchised, like blacks. People will STILL say ‘no way.’ And yet, some people think that individuals with certain disabilities are just going to have to suck it up,” says Becker. “And that’s a choice I refuse, and PFAW refuses, to accept.”
Becker knows Holt is an imperfect vehicle for voting reform. “2008 is not the finish line for access or integrity. We are not going to have perfect elections in 2008,” he says. “What we need to do is pass legislation that tries to acknowledge the current state of accessible technology -- which is not fully accessible -- and provide incentives for it to be increased, and do the same thing for security and integrity issues.”
Voting advocates who present access issues as a diversion from integrity issues drive Becker to distraction, especially the advocates who attack those they disagree with. “There’s a schism developing on what’s perceived as the left, lots of vitriol. It’s not productive and the rightwing is the only beneficiary of that. We’ve got to put this questioning of motives aside,” says Becker. For example, “It is not crazy for people with disabilities to be working with manufacturers of devices that try to even the playing field. Frankly, it’d be crazy for the disability community to NOT work with these companies.” Right now PFAW takes heat from groups much further left who consider PFAW’s support of the Holt bill as something akin to high treason. Here’s a snippet from the Democratic Underground blog:
People for the American Way (PFAW) -- previously the "good guys" in many a fight for your democracy -- continues their dishonest and misleading campaign to support Rep. Rush Holt's dangerous Election Reform Bill (HR 811).
“The tension put out on all this stuff is that it’s access vs. the security and accuracy of our elections, and we’ve been put in a situation where we have to agree with one side or the other,” says Christina Galindo-Walsh, spokesperson for the National Disability Rights Network, which works within the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities on voting issues. “The bulk of people at CCD say look, we want both. We want fair and accurate elections that ensure accessibility, and we think it can be done.”
Galindo-Walsh says instead of supporting one type of voting system over another, we should simply insist that whatever system’s agreed upon can be used by everyone. “The majority of states have passed paper-trail legislation, requiring some paper record. That train has left the station, it’s fruitless to fight it,” she says. “So we decided to get out of the debate of whether something is secure or not secure, because frankly we don’t have the time or expertise to make those assessments anyway. We’re going to focus on what we know: accessibility. If others have decided paper’s the way to make things more secure, then there needs to be a way to make that paper accessible, to secure a private and independent vote.”
Coming to this conclusion wasn’t all that hard for NDRN and CCD, given the diversity of opinion among people with disabilities. “There are some in our community who are fine with DREs and some who would rather give up all their accessibility because they’re scared the machines won’t count their vote,” says Galindo-Walsh. “In this way the disability population isn’t any different than the rest of the population. Some in the broader community feel very strongly that the machines are evil, and others feel they’re trustworthy and there’s no problem.” Besides, she points out, “There is no machine right now in any jurisdiction in the country that meets HAVA [accessibility] criteria.”
Meanwhile, the Holt bill lurches forward, and right now it looks as if its deadlines for accessibility will be tweaked. The New York Times reported on July 21 that the bill’s most sweeping changes now won’t be implemented until 2012, which gives our community more time to figure out the whole accessible machine conundrum. What comes next? We’ll see on election day.
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Jul 24 02:27
Xuxan, there is no perfect solution. I'm lucky that in my world I have people that I can trust--it must be difficult not to have one person on the planet that you would personally trust with helping you vote. I still think an abesentee ballot is a better option than a computer program--that has been demonstrated again and again that it can be hacked into and the company that makes it that is backing a certain party. I'm all for finding a solution--braille absentee ballots? Other options--for sure, but not computers. The old ballot system was far from perfect, but the system and the paper trail made it much more difficlut--not impossible as we saw in Bush Vs. Gore--to steal an election.
Jul 24 01:08
ABSENTEE BALLOT ARE NOT ACCESSIBLE! If you cannot see, you cannot read the ballot or mark the ballot. If you cannot read, you cannot read or mark the ballot. If you cannot physically write, you cannot mark the ballot yourself. Private voting means that you alone know how you choose to vote. You alone make that mark.
I read the ballot and entered what my son wanted me to enter on his first half dozen ballots. He has absolutely no way of knowing if I voted the way he intended to vote. He has to trust me. What if he had no one to trust?
It is only through electronic ballot marking that people who are blind, nonreaders, and have little independent movement can vote independently and privately.
Jul 24 01:21
Interesting for sure--however in view of the FACT that Bush lost the last two elections but still managed to steal the presidency, and it is no secret that the folks at Diebold have said that they will do "whatever it takes" in terms of keeping Republicans in power, "computer only" voting is crazy. It's too easy to rig or hack.
I think everybody misses the easiest solution--if we can't make it to the voting booth just file an absentee ballot. Absentee ballots are about as accessible both time wise and being able to be filled out anywhere, as it gets.
Jul 24 04:43
Diebold is not the only manufacturer of voting systems. The Automark is an electronic ballot marker which thus provides a paper trail.