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Counties race to make voting accessible to all

by Amy Kingsley

County board members from across the state gathered Dec. 14 in downtown Greensboro with representatives from voting technology companies as both try to beat looming deadlines to bring election hardware into federal compliance.

Representatives from Diebold and Election Systems & Software presented their wares in a large room in the downtown Marriott. The presentation was the last of four such events held across the state for county commissioners and board of elections members.

Each company showed two systems: one optical scan, where voters mark a paper ballot that is fed into a computer reader, and one direct record electronic or touch screen. All four of the machines have been approved by the State Board of Elections, which evaluated machines for disabled accessibility and verifiability. The next step will be for county boards across the state to decide on machines to purchase.

Paper records of ballots are required under the Help America Vote Act for potential recount confirmation. Optical scan machines have always produced a verifiable paper trial because ballots are marked and then scanned. The Direct Record Electronic machines displayed had been modified to record votes on an internal paper reel similar to a receipt.

A handful of advocates for the disabled also came to test the new equipment. One of them was Aaron Shabazz, director of the Joy A. Shabazz Center for Independent Living, who attended to test the machines for accessibility.

‘“What we are hoping is that the Help America Vote Act will live up to its name and intentions for people with disabilities,’” Shabazz said.

The wheelchair-bound Shabazz lives in Guilford County and has had to use an assistant to vote in past elections. What the 2002 law promotes, and Shabazz said he would like, is more independence for voters of all levels of physical ability.

He tried an Automark machine made by Election Systems & Software. It attaches to their optical scan technology and allows users to choose on a touch screen. Headphones can adapt the machine for visually impaired voters and a sip/puff tube can be attached for those with severe mobility impairment who cannot use a touch screen.

Diebold also provides adaptive devices for voters with disabilities. A telephone-style touchpad paired with headphones allows visually impaired voters to make their selection and write in candidates.

Guilford County Office of Elections Director George Gilbert also attended the event, but will have more meetings with the companies before making a final selection. Capital cost, or the initial price for new machines, is only one part of the consideration, Gilbert said. He maintained that the operating cost for optical scans are higher than direct record electronic machines, and that the Guilford County Board of Commissioners has allocated enough money for the purchase of either of the machines.

‘“There are a lot of factors,’” he said. ‘“Eighteen years ago the Board of Commissioners decided they wanted the best voting system for the county and I think they’ll continue to support us in that.’”

Each county will be able to choose the machine they like out of those that have been approved. The state will negotiate the contract and price with the companies.

Gilbert said he would make a of presentation to the Board of Commissioners on Jan. 19 about which machines he would like the county to use. He has long advocated direct record electronic voting, but the new regulations require a verifiable paper trail on such machines.

Shabazz preferred the telephone-style interface used by the Diebold machines to the Braille keys on the direct record electronic Election Systems & Software. He was able to vote on the companies’ Automark machine with little help from company employees.

In addition to having adaptable interfaces, voters and officials were also concerned with under voting and other ballot marking problems. Both systems require voters to verify their vote on a summary screen before casting a ballot.

Some states like Georgia purchase voting systems statewide, while North Carolina allows each of the 100 counties to choose a voting system that has been approved by the State Board of Elections. Brooks Garrett-Jones, an election technician for the State Board, said that the purchasing scheme they have worked out makes countywide contracting as affordable as a state agreement.

‘“With the new law there is no way a county can run the same voting system this year that they ran five years ago,’” Garrett-Jones said. ‘“Basically we’re up against a hard deadline and its crunch time here. But we don’t want voters in North Carolina to think that we are cutting any corners. Everything is important.’”

States are required to comply with the Help America Vote Act by the 2006 federal elections. For Guilford County, that means replacing all of the Election Systems & Software Votronic machines with technology that produces a paper ballot. The county has not yet had machines adaptable for the visually impaired at any precincts.

Both voting officials and activists for the disabled stress the importance of reliable and accessible machines for democracy at all levels.

‘“A lot of people talk about the First Amendment or the Fourteenth Amendment, the ones that guarantee our rights,’” Garrett-Jones said. ‘“But without the right to vote, all those other rights don’t mean very much.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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