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More MS news articles for May 2004

Reform to remove barriers

Monday, May 24, 2004
Elizabeth Benjamin
The Times-Union

On the day of the Albany County Legislature special election, Maxine Johnson arrived at her polling place fully informed about the candidates and ready to vote. But first, she had to get through the door.

Johnson, 50, of Albany, has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair. The day before the election, she scouted the polling site at the Unitarian Church on Washington Avenue to see if it was handicapped-accessible. She thought it was but wasn't completely sure.

The front stairs were clearly out of the question. Around the corner was a concrete ramp to a side door that looked as if it would accommodate her battery-powered chair. On the day she visited, the door was ajar. Now it was closed. Johnson wasn't sure she could open it.

"You just never know," said Johnson, holding open the heavy door with one hand while awkwardly maneuvering herself inside with the other. It was a tight fit.

"This would be enough to get someone who's not so determined to vote to just go back home," said Susan Cohen, the statewide systems advocate at the Capital District Center for Independence, as she watched Johnson inch forward.

Accessibility of polling places and voting machines is at the heart of disabled people's concerns as New York works to overhaul its voting system to meet mandates laid out by the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002. HAVA provides millions of dollars to states to modernize and improve voting systems.

Experts estimate that 20 percent to 25 percent of the population has some type of disability -- from cognitive disorders to hearing or sight loss to physical challenges. New York's archaic voting system -- particularly its outdated lever voting machines -- has long disenfranchised people with disabilities, advocates say. They view HAVA as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to change the system for the better.

"This is the one opportunity that anyone alive today will probably ever have to revise the election process in New York," said Greg Jones, deputy advocate and counsel at the state Office of the Advocate for Persons with Disabilities. "It's a chance that we can't afford to screw up."

Johnson has voted by absentee ballot since she began regularly using a wheelchair 15 years ago. The April 27 election was her first experience voting at the polls as a disabled person.

Once inside the church, she faced more hurdles.

Her chair confounded poll workers, who were unsure about voting protocol for people with disabilities.

The voting booth's curtain would not close completely around Johnson's chair, compromising her privacy. Even stretching, she could not reach the top row of levers.

At Johnson's request, Cohen stepped inside the voting booth and pulled the lever next to Johnson's candidate of choice.

Johnson left the church disappointed.

"I should be able to go in and vote just like you do," she said. "People with disabilities should have the same rights as everybody else." goal of HAVA, signed into law by President Bush in 2002, was to prevent a repeat of debacles like the Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election. Congress authorized as much as $3.9 billion to help states overhaul election procedures. So far, $2.3 billion has been appropriated.

The act directs states to purchase new electronic voting machines that are fully accessible by disabled people -- including the blind and visually impaired -- and ensure "such individuals can vote independently and with privacy."

HAVA also mandates creation of a statewide voter database and establishment of new identification requirements for first-time voters who register by mail. In addition, it provides grants for polling place accessibility surveys and poll worker training.

Under HAVA, states were supposed to have all of their old voting machines replaced by the 2004 election. But New York, like most states, asked for and received a waiver delaying the deadline to replace its about 20,000 machines until 2006.

New York has received $66 million and is to receive millions more this month. All told, the state will get $220 million if Congress fully funds HAVA.

The state Board of Elections wants to use $500,000 to hire consultants to do preliminary work on a database of New York's 11 million registered voters.

But the HAVA money is caught in a political logjam.

Gov. George Pataki included $180 million in HAVA funds in his proposed 2004-05 budget, but the Legislature has not agreed on the bills needed to release the money.

A 10-member bipartisan conference committee of Senate and Assembly lawmakers has been meeting publicly to try to hash out differences in the two houses' respective HAVA bills. But an apparent agreement reached on only one issue -- acceptable forms of ID for first-time voters who registered by mail -- fell apart two days after it was reached.

After four meetings, the conference committee has not addressed the topic of voting machines or polling place accessibility -- the two issues advocates for the disabled care most about. Sen. Thomas Morahan, R-Nanuet, who is co-chairing the panel, has said negotiations could continue behind closed doors.

Last week, a group of wheelchair users blocked lawmakers in a hearing room at the Legislative Office Building, where the conference committee was meeting. They demanded the lawmakers make a decision on voting machines and prevented anyone from leaving for 40 minutes.

The committee members agreed to continue negotiating, but have not yet scheduled another meeting.

Some observers worry the state isn't leaving enough time to buy new machines and train poll workers and voters to use them by the 2006 elections. If New York misses its HAVA deadlines, it must return the money it has received.

Others say the delay could benefit lawmakers because they'll be able to learn from other states' problems with electronic machines. California, for example, stopped some counties from using them in November because of security concerns and errors during March elections.

In a perfect world, a request for proposals from voting machine companies would have gone out last fall and the contract or contracts would already be let, said state Board of Elections spokesman Lee Daghlian. The longer the state delays, he said, the more difficult its transition to new voting machines will be.

"We haven't bought machines here in any volume in more than 50 years," Daghlian said. "We're very anxious. We're mandated to get this job done and we're waiting for legislative action." Some might think Mike Tyszka has it easy when it comes to voting. All he has to do is ride the elevator to the polling place in the lobby of his Hamilton Avenue apartment building.

But actually casting a vote isn't so easy for Tyszka, 34, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.

Like Johnson, Tyszka could not get his chair completely inside the voting booth on April 27, and he could not reach the top levers. A poll worker entered the booth to help.

Tyszka said he typically votes by absentee ballot, but he worries paper ballots aren't counted.

"It's really a waste of paper and a waste of time," he said.

This is a topic of some debate. Daghlian said every legal ballot is counted. Good government advocates aren't so sure.

Tyszka would like to vote on his own, privately.

"It's not our fault that we're disabled," he said. "They say they want us to vote, but then they make it so difficult. I believe that it's an infringement on our rights." Earlier on election day, Roberta Caffalette, a 60-year-old Albany resident, arrived at School 19 on New Scotland Avenue to cast her ballot.

But Caffalette, who is blind, was without a friend or family member who could pull the lever on her behalf. As required by the state Board of Elections, two poll workers -- one Democrat and one Republican -- had to be in the booth to ensure the candidate Caffalette requested was the one she voted for.

Later, Caffalette said she had felt "pressured" and uncomfortable.

"It's frustrating that two other people have to know how I voted," she said. "Of course, one is a Democrat and one is a Republican, so either way, somebody's going to feel bad that I didn't vote their way. I'm not someone who likes to displease people."

When the HAVA debate first began, advocates for the disabled said the best way to make voting machines more accessible would be to do away with New York's full-face ballot, which lists every candidate on a single grid. Only Delaware shares that system.

People with disabilities say there are too many rows and columns for someone in a wheelchair to reach without assistance and argue that the crowded grid can be confusing to those with cognitive disorders.

"For people with severe dyslexia, it's as impossible for them to read columns as it is for me to do brain surgery," said Jim Dickson, head of the American Association for People with Disabilities, who is blind. "Their brains just don't function that way."

Advocates for the disabled prefer touch-screen or other kinds of "direct record electronic" machines that present a voter with one race and one list of candidates at a time. DREs, which cost about $4,000 each, also are less expensive than electronic full-face ballot machines, which can run as high as $8,000 apiece.

But DREs make many elected officials uncomfortable, particularly state legislators whose names appear at the end of the ballot. They worry voters won't stick around long enough to vote for them -- a phenomenon known as "falloff" or "dropoff."

Although numerous studies show falloff is actually less prevalent with touch-screen machines than the full-face ballot, elected officials in New York have resisted the change.

In response, advocates for the disabled recently offered a compromise: An electronic machine that incorporates both the full-face ballot and multiple screens.

Making every new voting machine the state purchases accessible could be prohibitively expensive. Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, an Ulster County Democrat who chairs the Assembly's Task Force on People with Disabilities, said one solution would be to have a laptop-like attachment at each polling site that could accommodate everything from a device quadriplegics could blow into to voice recordings and earphones for the blind.

Such a machine doesn't yet exist, but that doesn't bother Cahill.

"We're New York; we're a big consumer that is going to be buying more than 20,000 voting machines," he said. "Someone will create what we need." Even as state lawmakers and advocates struggle to find common ground on the full-face ballot, Jeremy Creelan is working on a lawsuit that might make the entire subject moot.

Creelan, associate counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, plans to argue the full-face ballot violates the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act by discriminating against voters with cognitive disabilities.

Creelan said he hopes to block the state from buying new voting machines before the full-face ballot's legality is decided.

"Our point is to get in there before any money is really invested in these machines," he added.

Meanwhile, voting machine companies are spending big money on lobbyists in hopes of influencing lawmakers who seem to be leaning toward issuing several contracts for machines rather than mandating one model.

Voting machine and software suppliers have spent at least $500,000 in the past two years lobbying in New York as the state works on becoming HAVA compliant, according to a recent report by the New York Public Interest Research Group and the League of Women Voters.

Among the players and their well-connected lobbyists are Jeff Buley, the state GOP's attorney who has close ties to Pataki, working for Sequoia Voting Systems, and former state GOP Chairman Bill Powers, representing Accupoll.

Activists fighting for rights for the disabled don't have a lot of money to hire lobbyists. But they have something potentially more powerful -- they care passionately about making voting machines and polling sites accessible and are willing to work for it.

"Those lobbyists in their fancy suits, this isn't their life, someone's paying them," Cohen said. "If something's blocking your life and liberty, you're going to fight for all you're worth."

Copyright © 2004, Capital Newspapers