Diebold and the Disabled
By Kim Zetter WiredNews Oct. 12, 2004 PT
In the controversy over electronic voting machines, activists for disability groups have been at the forefront of campaigns to convince counties and states to purchase touch-screen voting systems. They've attested to the security and accuracy of the machines, going so far as to sue counties and states that don't purchase the machines.
And they've opposed e-voting machines that produce a paper trail.
The disability groups say they're just fighting for the right to use accessible machines, because touch-screen voting systems are the only ones that let them cast ballots without assistance.
But other voting activists say disability groups have become shills for the voting companies, pressuring counties to buy insecure voting systems over other options.
"I feel they're using blind voters to pursue an agenda that's actually not in the interest of any voters," said Maryland voting activist Linda Schade of TrueVoteMD. "Because these machines don't discriminate when they lose votes, they can lose or inaccurately record the votes of blind voters as well as seeing voters."
Financial connections and a partnership between one disability group and Diebold Election Systems' parent company also raise questions about motives and conflicts of interest.
In May 2000, Diebold, a maker of automated teller machines, agreed to pay the National Federation of the Blind $1 million to help build a new research and training institute. The money was offered in exchange for the NFB agreeing to a lawsuit it filed against Diebold for installing ATMs inaccessible to blind customers, when technology for making the machines accessible was available. The NFB also formed a partnership with Diebold to help the company develop and market accessible ATM machines an agreement that later extended to the company's touch-screen voting systems.
The NFB, which calls itself "the voice of the nation's blind," then used the Americans with Disabilities Act to file lawsuits against banks not using accessible ATMs. It later sued two states to force them to upgrade or obtain e-voting machines while a debate about the security and reliability of such systems was growing nationwide.
The NFB and its state affiliates have also advised states and the federal government on accessible voting issues and pushed for legislation regarding such systems without disclosing the group's relationship to Diebold. James Gashel, the NFB's lobbyist who testified on e-voting in congressional hearings in 2001, said most of the testimony and advising were done in 2000 and 2001, before Diebold entered the domestic voting business in 2002.
"I have not said boo to the Congress about voting since March 2001," he said. But even if he were to testify before Congress today, he said, he would not disclose the information unless asked because he doesn't think the issues are related.
"The resolution of a lawsuit involving ATMs (doesn't) have a thing to do with voting," Gashel said. "Voting and ATMs are two different kinds of technology." He also said the NFB's relationship with Diebold isn't a secret both entities in 2000 released announcements about the grant, which are posted on their websites.
But Alex Knott, political editor at the Center for Public Integrity, said even if the information is available publicly, the NFB should disclose it when speaking to states or federal agencies.
"It's important to note that his organization shares an affiliation with a company that has something to gain (from endorsements he makes)," Knott said. "If you're talking about a relevant topic and are receiving money from a company like that, it's important for you to be transparent."
Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project agrees.
"This is basic information that bears on his point of view and the value of his testimony, and the public needs to know of any actual or potential conflicts of interest when he speaks to Congress or to states," Ruskin said.
By lobbying the government on legislation that would benefit Diebold while taking money from the company and helping to market Diebold products, Ruskin says the NFB risks the appearance that the NFB and its endorsement are "for sale."
"A million dollars is a lot of money for a nonprofit to receive," Ruskin said. "Anyone in Washington knows that money often comes with strings attached. He who pays the piper calls the tune. That's what Washington lobbying and gift giving is all about."
The NFB isn't the only disability group to receive money from voting companies. The government lobbyist for the American Association of People with Disabilities, who has traveled around the country testifying on behalf of touch-screen voting, acknowledged this year that his organization received at least $26,000 from voting companies, but only after first denying it.
When asked in April, Jim Dickson, vice president of government affairs for the AAPD, told Wired News his organization had never received money from voting companies. But in June, he told The New York Times the organization had gotten money.
Dickson didn't disclose the gifts at hearings in California this year, where he tried to convince officials not to decertify touch-screen voting machines made by Diebold and other companies. Nor did he disclose the information in Washington in May when he participated in hearings with the federal Election Assistance Commission.
"He comes to states where he's not even registered to vote and he gives this very heartfelt testimony about how meaningful it is to vote independently," said Natalie Wormeli, an attorney in California who is blind. "But in his testimony he never says he's a professional spokesperson, he never says he's not a registered voter in the state, and he never discloses how he's getting paid."
Dickson did not respond to repeated calls for comment.
The NFB's willingness to align itself with Diebold seems particularly strange in light of its own policy, expressed by lobbyist James Gashel before the Committee on Labor and Human Resources. Gashel told the committee that whenever the NFB tested technologies to evaluate their accessibility, it always purchased the equipment, rather than accept it gratis from vendors and risk the appearance of impropriety.
"The challenging word is 'buy' not 'accept' or 'receive,' but 'buy,'" Gashel said. "We find the money to support this effort because we want to be completely independent from manufacturers or marketing interests. This is essential if the advice we give or reports we publish are to be regarded as credible."
The issue of impropriety becomes especially sensitive where lawsuits are involved.
In March 2001, the president of the Vermont affiliate of the NFB initiated a lawsuit against Banknorth, Chittenden Bank, Northfield Savings Bank and the Vermont State Employees Credit Union. A year later Banknorth settled and agreed to install accessible ATMs at 470 locations in six states. Other banks settled as well. .
But when Chittenden announced it would spend $250,000 over five years to modify or replace 35 of its 68 ATMs, the Vermont Free Press reported "the NFB said that was not enough, and continues to push for more talking ATMs, faster."
Activists said the goal was to increase Diebold's revenue.
The company's domestic revenue did increase by about 10 percent, or $2 million, the first year after its legal settlement with the NFB. But the revenue came mostly from services rather than the sale of products, which actually ped during that period. And domestic revenue the next year ped to less than a million.
"It's a decent increase," Diebold spokesman Michael Jacobsen said of the initial revenue boost. "But that came from a number of things. We haven't seen anything in terms of lawsuits against our bank customers that had an appreciable impact on our business." If banks upgraded their products to make them accessible (Diebold and other ATM makers have upgrading kits for this), it would cost only $1,000 to $2,000 per machine, as opposed to $40,000 for a new ATM.
ATM lawsuits aren't the only concerns, however. The NFB and AAPD have turned their attention to voting lawsuits that promise to benefit vendors as much as voters with disabilities.
The NFB, AAPD and individuals with disabilities have filed half a dozen lawsuits in California, Washington, D.C., Florida and Philadelphia to force counties and states to purchase touch-screen voting machines. In Ohio, the NFB filed suit after Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell decided to delay the purchase of touch-screen machines over concerns that the systems were insecure.
In 2002, five visually impaired voters sued Maryland to force the state to buy accessible voting machines more quickly than it thought wise, and the NFB joined the suit six months later. Maryland now uses Diebold machines statewide, except in one county. This year, the NFB switched sides to defend the Maryland Board of Elections in a different suit filed by voting activists who challenged the legality and integrity of the Diebold systems.
Although in lawsuits the NFB has never specified which brand of touch-screen machines states and counties should purchase, the group has made no secret of its preference.
In 2002, when Maryland's Board of Elections asked researchers at the University of Maryland to conduct a usability study of the Diebold system, the researchers reported (PDF) that visually impaired voters found the system "confusing and hard to navigate." The board took issue with the report and defended the Diebold system saying it "is the system preferred by the National Federation of the Blind."
In September 2003, after computer scientists released reports showing that the Diebold touch-screen system was flawed, NFB President Marc Maurer said the NFB had "complete confidence in the proliferation and capacity of electronic voting systems and in Diebold Election Systems, in particular, to operate at an optimal level of security, accuracy and accessibility that protects the integrity of elections."
Doug Jones, a University of Iowa professor of computer science and a member of that state's board of examiners for voting systems, thought it was a strange comment to make for a group that knows nothing about computer programming.
"Why in the world would an organization like the NFB, that has no expertise in computer security or reliability, say something like that?" Jones said.
An NFB member wondered the same thing when he posted to an NFB e-mail list last September expressing concern about a conflict of interest "if NFB seems to only single out one company, and one that has contributed substantially to NFB coffers."
California attorney Wormeli is more concerned that by using the court system to force counties and states to purchase voting machines before they can be made more secure, they're putting the democracy at risk.
"It's the wrong approach at the wrong time," Wormeli said. "By letting them be sponsored by these corporations who only want to sell machines, they don't necessarily look out for our interest, which is to make sure our votes are getting counted properly."
As Wormeli told a hearing in a California earlier this year, "We have time to let the technology that's being perfected find its way to California. I refuse to be an impatient passenger in the back of the car saying, 'When are we going to get there?' I know we're going to get there, but I want to get there safely."