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Disabled sue over voting machines
They want touch-screen units by November; officials want state's verification mandate resolved first.
By Cameron Jahn Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 a.m. PST Tuesday, March 9, 2004
Claiming that 250,000 people with disabilities were disenfranchised in last week's election, advocates for the disabled filed suit in Los Angeles federal court Monday to force four of the state's largest counties to install voting machines that all voters can use independently by the November presidential election.

The four counties - Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco and Santa Barbara - are home to 32 percent of California's registered voters.

 At a Sacramento news conference, disability advocates blamed Secretary of State Kevin Shelley for the lack of machines that would allow disabled people to vote without the help of a second person.

The plaintiffs are pushing for touch-screen voting machines that disabled people can use independently, but county voting officials are hesitant to buy them until a requirement by Shelley that the machines offer paper verification of votes is resolved.

Led to the microphone at Monday's news conference in Sacramento by her guide dog, Rhonda King described the difficulty she faced last week at the polls when she was handed a pencil-and-paper ballot. She required help from another person to cast her ballot.

"Right now I feel excluded from my polling place," said King, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. "Touch-screen voting is a way for me to take an active role in the voting process."

While disabled voters in Sacramento, San Francisco and Santa Barbara counties needed assistance to cast their ballots last week, Los Angeles County's disabled community was able to vote independently on touch-screen machines at 15 places the week before the election. On election night, however, only one of 4,571 polling places was equipped with a touch-screen machine.

"With regard to the lawsuit, we have not been formally served but will fully review the suit when we receive it," Doug Stone, Shelley's spokesman, said in a prepared statement. "As to the larger issue, Secretary Shelley is committed to the goal of implementing fully accessible voting systems in every polling place in California and has moved the state steadily toward that goal while preserving the integrity of and confidence in the voting process."

All voting precincts in the state must have at least one touch-screen voting machine like the kind desired by disability advocates in place by 2005.

In November, Shelley announced that all voting machines must produce a paper receipt so voters can verify their ions before electronically casting their ballots by 2006. However, no such machine is currently certified for use in California.

Los Angeles County election officials said Shelley's directive prompted them to scrap plans to buy more than 4,000 touch-screen voting machines because they want to see a certified unit that produces a paper trail before committing to such a large purchase.

Voters in at least 12 counties used touch-screen voting machines during last week's primary election, and disability rights advocates said the four counties named in the suit should adopt similar systems by November.

The suit was launched by the California Foundation of Independent Living Centers, the American Association of People with Disabilities and the California Council of the Blind Inc.

In addition to Shelley, top elections officials in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Santa Barbara and San Francisco counties were named in the suit.

Federal election rules require all voters, including those with disabilities, to cast their ballots unassisted by 2006, but elections officials statewide face significant challenges before everyone can vote independently.

Installing touch-screen voting machines in more than 800 polling places, training poll workers and educating 593,000 voters would take months of work before Election Day on Nov. 7, Sacramento County voting officials said.

Logistics aside, Sacramento County is still trying to figure out how many machines to buy and what the upgrade will cost. Elections officials here received a bid last year to outfit their polling places with touch-screen voting machines for $30 million, but the county has only $11.7 million in state and federal money to spend, leaving the county on the hook for the rest. Elections officials rejected the bid, along with another one for $18 million.

Alice Jarboe, Sacramento County's voting services manager, said she feels caught between new elections regulations that mandate independent voting for all and a lag in technology that could leave the county with a set of touch-screen machines that will need to be retrofitted with paper-trail printers in the future.

"I understand where people with disabilities are coming from," she said. "They have waited their entire lives for this to happen, it's right there and they want it now."

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