Photo taken at New York’s 32nd Precinct. Voters had some difficulty with New York’s new “Terminator” voting machines.

In the fallout of the 2000 U.S.  Presidential Election, the U.S. Congress and President Bush passed the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (“HAVA”) to prevent a recurrence of the voter confusion and vote invalidation that occurred in that election.  Among its provisions, HAVA required states to create electronic voter registration lists, implement stricter voter identification standards, and transition to modern electronic voting machines.  These changes were met with resistance from voting rights advocates and state officials; nevertheless the number of HAVA compliant localities continues to increase.  New York remained among the states that did not implement key provisions of HAVA, even in the face of challenges from the U.S. Justice Department.

In fact, HAVA has dramatically expanded opportunities for some segments of the population to participate in the electoral process due to its improved poll accessibility and required electronic voting machines.  Advocates for the disabled, like the American Association of People with Disabilities (“AAPD”), have embraced HAVA in their efforts to improve physical access and provide assistance at the polls.  The AADP cites nationwide improvements in polling place and voting machine accessibility, as well as an increase in disabled voter registration thanks to HAVA.

New York was a prominent battleground for HAVA implementation during the 2010 Midterm Elections.  Eight years after HAVA became law, New York has finally authorized electronic voting machines for use beginning with September’s primaries.  The new machines promise to make the voting process faster and avoid lines, while also improving accountability.  The old lever-operated machines had no back-up method of counting the votes should the internal register fail.  Now, voters must fill out paper ballots (compared to SAT answer sheets), which are then inserted into the electronic reading machine.  If the electronic tally fails, there is a paper backup available to avoid invalidating all of the votes cast at the machine.

But the new machines aren’t perfect.  Voters encountered numerous problems in the September primaries.  Some found the ballots too small and hard to read.  The new machines required significantly more training for poll workers to operate, and even then, forced delayed openings for many poll sites.  Ballots were invalidated if voters mistakenly darkened too many candidates’ bubbles.  Machines that started later jammed and backed up the polls for hours.  Voters felt that the ballot marking process denied them the privacy offered by the old system.  Even Mayor Bloomberg thought the implementation of the new machines was “a royal screw-up.”

Despite these defects, the new system has significant support from the state’s disabled voters.  The new machines are far more accessible to disabled voters than lever-operated machines, particularly with the addition of the specialized ballot marking device which improves the ability of disabled voters to vote privately and independently, including magnifying the ballot for voters with low vision, providing audio for blind voters, and offering rocker paddles and sip and puff operating mechanisms for physically disabled voters.  But while the voting machines are easier to use, advocates are quick to point out that New York has a long way to go in making its political process freely available to the state’s disabled voters.

Many polling sites in New York, particularly in New York City, remain inaccessible to disabled voters due to obstructions or insufficient ramps.  Other sites were not issued ballot marking devices or lacked poll workers trained in their use.  The Center for Independence of the Disabled, NY (“CIDNY”), a non-profit organization which advocates for the disabled in New York, conducted an inspection of polling sites and found that 80% of the 53 inspected had some form of obstruction (temp link).  CIDNY has also issued a comprehensive set of guidelines to improve access, including improving recruiting and training standards as well as developing individualized access plans for polling sites.

New York City Council members have joined in the demand for changes at polling sites.  Whether this reflects the city council’s true embrace of disability advocacy is up to question.  Pressure for change has built on multiple higher levels and may be responsible for the city council’s current interest.  At the federal level, HAVA not only requires improvement in accessibility, it also provides funding for improved accessibility, training, and awareness.  At the state level, New York Governor David Patterson recently signed amendments to the state’s election law requiring equal accessibility for the disabled statewide.  Whatever the reason, both the City Council Government Operations Committee and the State Senate Elections Committee held hearings in early October to examine issues arising from the 2010 Primary Elections.

In an interview with CIDNY Voting Rights Coordinator, Rima McCoy, she stated that the hearings did not reflect a “commitment to doing anything for accessibility before the general elections,” but instead focused on the broader voting issues discovered in the primaries.  After the hearings, the New York Board of Elections announced it would hold refresher courses for elections inspectors and poll site coordinators to avoid issues with the electronic voting machines in November.  This is still progress, without a doubt, but it creates the impression that important and easily remedied issues burdening disabled voting will be overlooked.  Rima McCoy believes the most glaring of these issues, including obstructed passageways, unlabeled disabled access routes, and underuse of the ballot marking device, should be addressed by emailing poll site coordinators a reminder about these issues at their sites.  These topics and other, larger issues, like proper usage of the ballot marking device, could be handled as part of the six hour training process required for poll workers for the next round of elections.

The aftermath of the 2010 primary elections and recent hearings show that much remains to be done to provide truly equal voting access for New York’s disabled voters.  While CIDNY’s guidelines provide a broad roadmap for New York City to address this issue, little can be expected to change without specific plans from the city council.  As of now, the city council seems focused on general voting issues and unwilling to directly address the concerns of disabled voters.

Christopher Robbins is third-year student at William & Mary Law School.


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