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Douglas Hadden    Pawtucket Times     15 November 2006

PAWTUCKET - Special new voting machines mandated under HAVA, the federal voting law designed to make voting easier and more equitable, including for people with disabilities, instead made Election Day miserable for a Pawtucket couple.

And not once but twice: For both the September primary and again in last week's general election.
Nor were they alone, in the city or statewide, as new machines created for use by the disabled repeatedly malfunctioned or never worked at all.

"You should be able to vote, and independently," said Teresa Hopkins, 78, who has been legally blind since 1995 and whose husband, Paul, 62, is totally blind. "I feel like we have a right to vote like everybody else votes - independently and privately."

With help from an attorney for the Rhode Island Disability Law Center, she and her husband filed an administrative complaint Oct. 23 with the state Board of Elections detailing their problems voting in the primary. No hearing date has been set in the case.

Their complaint alleges their rights under HAVA, the Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress in the wake of the 2000 Florida election debacle, were violated and they were "not afforded the same opportunity for access and participation as other voters...due to the obstacles at the polling place."

It took the Hopkinses, who vote at the Columbus Avenue fire station, two hours and a lot of help from "wonderful" poll workers, Teresa Hopkins said, to vote on primary day.

After using the AutoMark to mark their ballots to be fed into an optical scanner, the scanner refused to accept their ballots whether fed straight in, backward or the same alternative directions with the other side flipped up.

"I inserted my ballot in the AutoMark but the machine repeatedly told me to insert the ballot," both stated in their separate complaints. "I tried to the ballot four different ways and I heard the same (rejection) message each time."

That was primary day. Last Tuesday, it took another hour and a half and trotting over a machine from the Jenks Junior High School polling site before they could register their votes.

"It's just not right, that's what I'm more upset about than anything," said Ken McGill, who as registrar of the city Board of Canvassers oversees city elections and spent frustrating hours seeking remedies for the machine glitches, including for Paul and Teresa Hopkins.

After state elections officials promoted the machines as something that would help disabled voters mark their ballots more easily and independently, "it didn't happen," McGill said, unhappy the problems observed on primary day were not remedied by the general election.

"It was the most frustrating thing I've ever had to deal with," he said.

"Quite a lot of people tried to use it," McGill said of the popularity of the AutoMark machines the state procured with about $5 million in federal HAVA funding.

But most disabled voters in the city ultimately had to resort to using the manual connect-the-arrow ballots that Rhode Island elections have run on for years.

"Or give up and go home, never vote," McGill said, citing one instance he personally observed at the Varieur School where he noted City Councilor John Barry was also upset with the problems faced by disabled voters.

"I tried to assist people all day, but it just wasn't working," McGill said, and even after the Board of Elections sent a technician the machines could not be made operable.

"There was one for every precinct, so there was 31 (put in place). Now I can't say all of those were used but everyone that was used failed," with the apparent exception of the Jenks machine transferred to Columbus Avenue - which in turn left the junior high school site without a functioning machine for the disabled.

Teresa Hopkins said she is not one to make waves. But she also knows her rights, as she works part-time for the Governor's Disabilities Commission and attends National Federation for the Blind conferences, where she and her husband months ago test-drove the new machines.

They also both sat on the panel that recommended selection of AutoMark, one of a handful of makers for the new voting devices, and generally recognized as the machine that accomodates the widest latitude of disabilities.

"We thought this was pretty good. You could do it if you had any disability at all," she said. "This was not just for the blind," although some poll workers appeared misinformed about that, she said.

According to the National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems, under which the 50 state disability law centers work, the AutoMark machine also has a dual switch input allowing voters with dexterity disabilities to overcome them with sip and puff, foot petals, joy sticks and other "alternative ion devices," as well as voice and touch-screen activated inputs.

A call to the Board of Elections was not returned Wednesday. McGill said it remains unclear why the machines malfunctioned in Pawtucket but that similar experiences were echoed throughout the state.

Teresa Hopkins said while she believes the AutoMark read both sides of her ballot last Tuesday, it did not read both sides of her husband's and at that point he decided not to keep trying and left without voting on all the ballot questions.

She also said she is aware of other complaints like hers, including by a Cumberland voter, and that Gov. Donald Carcieri wrote a letter to elections officials registering his concerns and seeking answers.

"I've voted in every election since I turned 21. I come from a family that believed in that. I speak my piece," said Hopkins. "We are not going to be undone. We want to vote independently."


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