Saturday, October 9, 2004

It used to get crowded in the voting booth when Eileen Rivera Ley went to her precinct in College Park to cast a ballot.

Miss Rivera Ley, 41, couldn’t read the ballot because she is blind. She had to rely on someone else to go into the booth with her, read the ballot aloud, then vote for her.

Sometimes, that meant as many as three persons — the person who pulled the levers and election judges from both major parties as witnesses — huddled with Miss Rivera Ley behind the curtain at her polling place in Towson.

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

Next month, Miss Rivera Ley 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 some voter rights’ advocates are fighting to decertify electronic voting machines for fear they are not secure, 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 to the punch card,’” said James Gashel, an executive at the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind (NFB).

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

Many states and jurisdictions have fulfilled the requirement with electronic voting machines.

Maryland invested $55 million to install voting machines in every polling place. The devices allow voters to make choices by touching a ballot that appears on a computer screen. The machines are meant to make voting easier, more efficient and reduce errors that have plagued previous elections.

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

About 50 million Americans will be able to vote on about 100,000 electronic voting machines during the Nov. 2 election. The NFB estimates that about 300,000 of the nation’s 1.3 million blind people will use the equipment.

However, electronic voting faces several legal challenges over concern the machines can be tampered with, will produce inaccurate votes because of computer glitches or are subject to human error. Several voter advocacy groups want machines that produce a paper record of the vote count.

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