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April 01, 2005

Electronic Voting: Conflicts Within the General Public and the Disabled Community

The story, by now, is familiar. Exposed by the unprecedented scrutiny surrounding one of the most closely contested presidential elections in history, antiquated voting equipment and deficient procedures combined to bring the national electoral system to a near standstill in November 2000. Vote recording and tabulation technology, which had barely registered as raising any serious civil liberties concerns, suddenly ruled the national consciousness.

Armed with billions of dollars in federal aid and determined to avoid being “the next Florida,” state and local governments quickly moved to adopt newer, largely untested technologies, such as direct recording electronic (DRE) touch-screen voting terminals, that promised solutions. Designed, implemented, and operated with a glaring lack of transparency, DREs elicited vocal opposition before and after the 2004 presidential election. With the ability to neither confirm nor disprove system vulnerabilities, many critics adamantly insist on rapid upgrades to e-voting technologies to permit verification, such as the implementation of a voter-verified paper trail, or VVPT. Others demand that the machines be scrapped altogether.

For the disabled community, which U.S. census figures estimate at 20 percent of the country, this synopsis fails to tell the story. For decades, accessibility rights proponents have been engaged in a struggle to ensure that the franchise is equally available to all voters. Onerous practices have historically relegated disabled voters to a status they have perceived to be secondary and separate. Reform has proven to be slow. DRE technology, which addresses a number of core accessibility concerns, has left many disabled advocates conflicted, seemingly forced to choose between critical accessibility advancements and ballot integrity.

The struggle to ensure voter privacy underscores this apparent dilemma and highlights the risks of dissent among advocates otherwise similarly dedicated to the improvement of the electoral process. Most states provide citizens the opportunity to vote by secret ballot. For blind voters, for example, and for many other disabled voters, while a secret ballot may have been a right, it was rarely a reality. If these voters bothered to show up at the polls, they were usually assisted by poll workers. The 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act changed this by guaranteeing that voters had the right to take a person of their choice into the voting booth to provide assistance, a reform that had already been achieved in some states by virtue of advocacy by disabled voters themselves. This provided at least a modicum of security for visually or physically impaired voters who could bring a trusted family member or friend with them. Yet voters who could not bring an assistant were left to the mercy of poll workers.

Sharing one’s ballot was thus inevitable for many disabled voters until passage of the Help America Vote Act in 2002. By that time, disabled advocates had convinced voting machine manufacturers—whose products were increasingly electronic, computer-based terminals rather than mechanical voting devices—to incorporate into their products audio output through headphones and keypad interfaces. Once it had been demonstrated that a DRE could be made accessible to voters with disabilities, language requiring that at least one such machine be installed at each polling place using federal funds to upgrade its voting equipment was included in the Help America Vote Act.

What does the current generation of electronic voting machines do well? From an accessibility point of view, quite a bit. Most DREs now are equipped with a headphone jack and some kind of tactually differentiated keypad for use by the visually impaired. A voter using this interface plugs a standard set of headphones into the machine and either a recorded or synthesized voice guides him or her through the ballot. Audio interfaces can also be programmed to speak in different languages, thus making them beneficial to any voters who cannot read English.

While the blind have been the primary beneficiaries of DREs, benefits exist that can clearly improve the experiences of other disabled persons. Many DREs can be adjusted so that they are more easily reached by people using wheelchairs. Some are also portable and can run on batteries, so that they can be carried to a person using a wheelchair if he or she is unable to enter the polling place. Many voting machines accept sip/puff devices for people who cannot use their hands to activate the touch screen or control panel, and some can be activated by head movements. Many also offer magnification of the on-screen ballot in addition to an audio output for people with limited vision.

These accessibility features—notably not limited to DREs—stand in stark contrast to a range of security and design flaws and, what is to some, a fatal lack of transparency. DREs are almost exclusively closed systems, using hardware and software that never is subjected to rigorous independent inspection and testing. The public has even been shut out of the technology selection process in many parts of the country. Recent litigation brought by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the American Civil Liberties Union in Texas challenges rules denying voters the opportunity to simply observe, review, and question the claims of voting machine vendors.

Election officials and vendors have done little to reassure the public that such opaque practices are sufficient. During the past four years, a small but steady stream of reliable reports of DRE irregularities has surfaced. Reports include such troubling problems as votes being incorrectly recorded, machines inexplicably failing, votes being improperly added to final tallies, and votes being lost. Some election officials have taken an all-is-well stance without properly investigating whether such incidents indicate systemic problems, closing ranks with their vendors and effectively creating an impenetrable wall that prevents the public from monitoring its own elections in any meaningful way.

And then there is the issue of paper. Most DREs in use today create no tangible record of voters’ selections at the time that ballots are cast. Without the ability to verify their own ballot selections, voters are forced to rely on the machines themselves, along with the corresponding assurances of election officials and vendors, that votes are being uniformly, perfectly recorded.

Such security, transparency, and verifiability concerns have been largely rejected by election officials and have worried advocates for the disabled, who fear that the adoption of accessible voting technology will be slowed or halted by rising hostility to electronic voting machines. Some organizations, such as the American Association of People with Disabili-ties, have opposed the printing of paper ballots outright. Others, such as the National Federation of the Blind, do not oppose paper ballots but insist that the blind have a means of verifying what is being printed.

How, then, to address these competing concerns? Fortunately, technology has begun to address the problem in ways amenable to larger cross-sections of the population. For example, several DRE vendors have begun retrofitting older machines and introducing newer ones able to create VVPTs.

Another promising development has been the introduction of ballot-marking (or hybrid) systems that blend many of the better aspects of DREs and traditional optical scan (paper) systems. Current models use a touch screen or keypad to accept input from the voter and provide audio output in several languages. Instead of recording the voter’s choices electronically, they use an internal printer to mark an optically scanned ballot, even printing the names of write-in candidates entered by the voter. The benefits are obvious: ballot-marking devices feature the auditability of strictly paper-based systems while maintaining the significant advances in accessibility offered by DREs. Such a device can easily be used to supplement voting systems that use optically scanned paper ballots. To advocates for the disabled, such designs are superior to other commonly used accessibility solutions for paper-based systems, such as using tactile templates or audio cassettes, which can be awkward, slow, and underinclusive.

The adoption of VVPT-equipped DREs or ballot-marking voting equipment will not resolve all outstanding concerns. For example, none of the available voting machines effectively address the needs of the deaf-blind, who can neither hear the audio output nor see the screen. Paper-based systems are still vigorously opposed by many on a variety of grounds, based on the concerns raised by voters who cannot handle paper (such as quadriplegics or persons with severe cerebral palsy) and election officials who balk at the cost of printing, securing, and counting paper ballots. And although more portable machines have made so-called curbside voting more possible, some disability advocates worry that this practice is inequitable because it segregates them from the rest of the voting population and would prefer that states and counties act more aggressively to ensure that polling places are accessible to persons in wheelchairs or with mobility impairments. Even more contentious is the issue of recount law reform; specifically, whether in a VVPT-equipped DRE the paper or electronic ballot is the “official” ballot when there is a discrepancy. (Security experts prefer the contemporary tangible record, while others worry that making paper records that the blind cannot directly verify the only legal ballot will place the blind on unequal footing.) Poll worker training also remains woefully inadequate. Consequently, technicians employed by machine vendors, who have the greatest incentive to cover up technological problems, frequently have unfettered and unsupervised access to critical systems on Election Day. And, as exemplified by the last two presidential elections, far too many jurisdictions have inadequate technology contingency plans in case of machine breakdowns.

It is worth taking a step back from these disagreements and problems to realize that opportunities for collective advancement lie tantalizingly close. Whatever the shortcomings of the new technologies, the possibility for progress in key areas—accessibility, accuracy, security—is quite real, especially if accompanied by simultaneous development of clear legislative and regulatory guidelines that will help safeguard our most cherished democratic principles.

Opportunities for collaboration abound. For example, uniform standards for certifying voting technology, which establish clear guidelines on the security and accessibility tests voting systems should be able to meet, are critical. Likewise, it is imperative that transparency requirements be established at all levels of the voting process, including the certification of voting equipment and the establishment of election procedures, so that voters can be sure that voting systems and procedures have been and continue to be thoroughly and independently reviewed. Stakeholders in the voting debate must begin to work together to address the concerns outlined above and to present a united front to voting system vendors and government at all levels. Alternatively, voting systems are likely to continue to be adopted that imperfectly address security and accessibility concerns separately, one artificially cast against the other, prolonging this debate and diverting energy from other areas critically in need of attention.

Christopher S. Danielsen is the editor of the Voice of the Nation’s Blind , the online magazine of the National Federation of the Blind. Matt Zimmerman is a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.