Disabled pleased with voting privacy

By Stephen Manning

Associated Press

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- It used to get crowded whenever Eileen Rivera Ley voted.

Blind, Rivera Ley had to rely on someone else to read the ballot aloud, then vote for her. That meant as many as four people -- Rivera Ley, the person who pulled the levers and election judges from both major parties as witnesses -- huddled in the voting booth.

"It's like a party in there," Rivera Ley said. "You lose any kind of privacy when you have to speak how you want to vote."


This November, Rivera Ley, 41, will vote by herself for the first time. Blind voters in Maryland and several other states will use electronic voting machines equipped with technology that allows the disabled to vote independently.

While many voter rights' advocates are fighting to decertify electronic voting machines, arguing that they're not reliable, one bloc remains steadfast behind the new equipment -- disabled voters who say the machines give them long-denied privacy.

"The need for greater access by millions of people should not be overshadowed by this concern about security to the point that some people throw up their hands and say, 'Let's go back the punch card,"' said James Gashel, an executive at the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind, or NFB.

The Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress in 2002, requires polling places to provide the same privacy and independence to all voters by 2006.

Many states and jurisdictions have fulfilled the requirement with e-voting machines. Maryland invested $55 million to install ATM-like touch-screen machines in every polling place. The devices are meant to make voting easier, more efficient and less prone to error.

Most models come with the ability to produce an audio recording of a ballot that blind voters can listen to with headphones. The recording instructs them on how to use a keypad to cast their votes.

The height of the machines can also be adjusted for people in wheelchairs.

For those who are not blind but have difficulty seeing, the text size can be increased and the contrast adjusted to make the ballot screen easier to read.


But electronic voting faces several legal challenges over concerns the machines can be tampered with or produce inaccurate votes because of computer glitches or human error.

Critics of the touch-screen machines, on which nearly one in three U.S. voters will cast ballots on Election Day, want the machines to produce a paper record of each vote cast. Nevada already has that requirement, and California will by 2006.

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