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The 2004 presidential election saw a number of improvements in voting access for people with disabilities as a result of new federal legislation and the activities of many advocates, including Equip for Equality. Equip for Equality activities included training of election judges, training of individuals with disabilities on their rights (including a fact sheet on voting rights LINK), conducting election-day polling-place accessibility surveys, implementing voter registration, hosting an election day helpline and continued participation in committees advising voting authorities regarding accessibility issues.
This year promises to be the most exciting year ever for voters with disabilities. This is because, by January 1, 2006, the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) requires that every polling place in the country must have at least one "voting system" that is accessible to voters with disabilities, including blind and visually impaired voters. A voting system includes the voting machine and the process of voting with it. 2006 will mark the first time that blind voters will have what most other voters have always taken for granted: a secret ballot! The Department of Justice has also agreed with advocates such as Equip for Equality that a voting system is not accessible unless there is access to it – meaning, among other things, that every polling place should be accessible to those with mobility impairments.
Equip for Equality has been hard at work to ensure that the promises of HAVA come to fruition. For months, the hot topic has been voting machines, and Equip for Equality has been a prominent voice for voters with disabilities. Congress appropriated billions of dollars for a buy-out of punch-card machines (remember the hanging chads of 2000?) and to assist states in complying with the 2006 accessible voting system mandate. In anticipation of spending this money, voting authorities throughout the country issued requests for proposals (RFPs) from vendors. And vendors have been everywhere, touting their wares to disability groups, election officials and anyone else with influence over sales.
Because Chicago and Cook County together represent one of the largest voting jurisdictions in the country, advocates, election officials and vendors around the country are watching to see what happens here. Equip for Equality, along with others in the disability community, including the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities (MOPD), the Illinois Attorney General's Disability Rights Bureau, the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) and leaders in the blind community, have served on committees advising both Chicago and Cook County on selection of accessible voting equipment. In addition, MOPD and Equip for Equality developed a checklist for accessibility in voting machines, which was presented to both the Cook County clerk and the Chicago Board of Elections as a measure of what the community expects to find in "accessible" equipment.
Chicago and Cook County agreed early on to attempt to buy the same equipment. They issued combined RFPs and ultimately selected four finalists: Ivontronic, by ES&S; the Edge, by Sequoia; E-slate, by Hart; and AccuVote TS from Global Diebold. Members of the disability community were invited to review these machines and provide feedback. Despite feedback that detailed significant accessibility problems, resulting in its being rated third or fourth among disability advocates, the winning vendor was Sequoia. Reasons given for selecting Sequoia included price, reputation and the fact that the company had experience with the voter-verified paper trail (which is required in Illinois, but which is accessible to blind voters).
Equip for Equality's efforts did not end with this selection. Since the selection of Sequoia, Equip for Equality has persisted in working with the election officials in pressing to bring Sequoia into compliance with the requirements of accessibility as Equip for Equality, and other advocates, see them. Equip for Equality staff has participated in meetings with election officials and Sequoia, securing a commitment from the company to review and report on its progress in complying with each requirement in the list provided by Equip for Equality and MOPD. As a result of these efforts, a number of improvements have been made in the equipment and/or software (including the audio script); others will be in place by the March '06 election. Still others are promised by the November '06 election. Among the problems noted in the Sequoia equipment is lack of adequate usability by those with dexterity impairments and those with vision impairments who are also impaired in mobility. Voter verification for the blind remains unavailable. Equip for Equality has made it clear that it will not retreat from its position that, if voter verification of a paper record is required, then, under HAVA, it must be accessible to every voter.
As of this writing, the Lake County clerk has selected Automark by ES&S, and the Dupage County clerk has selected the E-slate by Hart Industries. Both have received generally favorable review by disability advocates. For updated information on voting-system selection and machine accessibility, readers may check the Equip for Equality website, www.equipforequality.org. As the 2006 elections approach, Equip for Equality will post updated information regarding modifications in Sequoia's equipment, as well as information about the selection and accessibility of voting equipment in other jurisdictions. Readers should also check the website of the Illinois State Board of Elections, and the websites of their own county or city voting jurisdictions.
While voting equipment has received most of the publicity, Equip for Equality has continued with other important voting activities. Most significant is that in the summer and fall of 2005, through its training institute headed by Stacy Yusim, Equip for Equality participated in training 2300 Cook County election judges in special training directed entirely to disability awareness and accessibility issues. Equip for Equality has also served as a member of the Illinois Disability Vote Project, a statewide organization dedicated to voting empowerment of people with disabilities. Equip for Equality conducted a polling-place survey during the last election and will repeat that survey in 2006 to evaluate progress. In addition, throughout the past year, Equip for Equality has participated in national conferences on voting issues regarding individuals with disabilities, including a conference co-sponsored by AAPD, UCP and the National Disability Rights Network (formerly NAPAS), and has presented at meetings of the Chicago Bar Association, including its election law committee, as well as at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Equip for Equality was also designated a bona fide state civic organization, which enabled many Equip for Equality staff members to be trained and certified as deputy registrars. More staff members will be trained and certified in the coming weeks. Equip for Equality's election-day helpline will also be up and running on both election days in 2006.
"Equip for Equality's voting rights work, most recently in the areas of accessibility in voting equipment, has been recognized as having a national impact, as all eyes are on Chicago and Cook County," says Karen Ward, Equip for Equality's Voting Project leader. We are proud of what we have accomplished, but much remains to be done to bring equality to individuals with disabilities in the most fundamental activity of a citizen in a democracy: voting."
For further information, please contact Karen Ward at Karen@equipforequality.org.
Spotlight: Voting Rights
Voter verification for the blind remains unavailable. Equip for Equality has made clear that it will not retreat from its position that, if voter verification of a paper record is required, then, under HAVA, it must be accessible to every voter.