Berkeley resident Karen Rose did not have to hire someone to accompany her to the voting booth during the March primary and read the ballot to her. With no one looking over her shoulder, Rose was able to vote without having to reveal to anyone else who she voted for.
Rose, a member of the city’s Disability Commission, is blind. Two weeks ago, she was able to vote completely on her own by listening to recorded instructions through headphones provided with a Diebold touch screen voting machine specially designed for the visually impaired.
“These machines are the only way that I get a secret ballot, a right that is constitutionally guaranteed,” she said.
The touch-screen machines are so popular within the disabled community, in fact, that last Monday, several disability advocacy and assistance organizations, including the American Association of People with Disabilities, the California Council of the Blind, the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers, and the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund of Berkeley, filed suit against four California counties and California Secretary of State Kevin Shelley for failure to provide such machines to completely service every disabled voter casting ballots in California.
But while the touch screen machines recently introduced throughout Alameda County are a boon to disabled voters, they are generating complaints from other quarters.
Three days after the disability advocates’ lawsuit was filed, State Representatives Don Perata (D-Oakland) and Ross Johnson (R-Irvine), filed a joint request asking the Secretary of State to halt the use of all electronic voting in the upcoming November election, citing recent major glitches with the machines here in Alameda county and Southern California during the March primary. In the city of Berkeley, for example, card scanners that clear the previous voter’s electronic ballot malfunctioned, causing major delays in the voting process.
According to City Clerk Sherry Kelly the city has had nothing but positive feedback about the machine’s advantages for voters with certain disabilities. And while she said she knows the machines have vulnerabilities, she doesn’t think those vulnerabilities are severe enough to disband them quite yet.
“There are some down sides and they need to be addressed, but I don’t think that means that we should stop using them,” she said. “I don’t think enough is known yet to take a step back.”
While Berkeley must pay a portion of the cost of the voting machines, the machines themselves are selected by the Alameda County Registrar of Voters office.
Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund attorney Sylvia Yee said there are 250,000 disabled voters in California who could benefit from the touch-screen machines. Along with the visually impaired, she noted that touch screen voting machines are particularly helpful to persons who cannot hold a pencil.
People with disabilities, she points out, are one of the last minority groups to be acknowledged by voting systems. Language minorities got ballots in their language several years ago. The disabled “want the ability to boldly go where others have gone before,” said Yee. Instead, “people with disabilities are just supposed to be good and wait.”
Dona Spring, a Berkeley councilmember who is disabled said that she agrees with both sides.
“People with disabilities have long been disenfranchised by the voting options available to them,” she said. “We need to make these systems more accessible, but at the same time there are some very serious concerns about the Diebold touch screen voting equipment.”
Spring said she advocates using absentee ballots until the kinks with the machines are worked out.
“Even if disabled voters have access, if their votes are not counted correctly is does no good,” she said. ˇ