Dan Tokaji's Blog
Professor Dan Tokaji
Election reform, the Voting Rights Act, the Help America Vote Act, and related topics -- with special attention to the voting rights of people of color, non-English proficient citizens, and people with disabilities

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Equal Vote
Tuesday, October 10
 
The Brennan Center on Disability Access
The Brennan Center today released this chapter from its report "The Machinery of Democracy: Voting System Security, Accessibility, Usability, and Cost." A press release announcing the report is here, which describes it as follows:

The report is the final product of the first comprehensive, empirical analysis of electronic voting systems in the United States. It comes after nearly two years of study with many of the nation's leading academics, election officials, economists, and security, usability and accessibility experts.

Up until this point, there has been surprisingly little empirical study of voting systems in the areas of security, accessibility, usability, and cost. The result is that jurisdictions make purchasing decisions and adopt laws and procedures that have little to do with their overall goals.

The Brennan Center analysis finds that there is not yet any perfect voting system or set of procedures. One system might be more affordable, but less accessible to members of the disabled community; certain election procedures might make the systems easier to use, but they compromise security.

The report examines direct record electronic machines (both with and without "voter verified" paper trails), precinct-count optical scan ballots, "hybrid" ballot-marking devices, mail ballots, and telephonic voting. Relying mainly on the analyses of a group of consulting experts, it finds that -- while no system is perfect -- computer-based systems generally accommodate people with disabilities better than paper-based systems. Included with the report are prior Brennan Center analyses of voting system security(which I discussed here) and usability. They've also got a cost calculator for different voting systems.

The report is essential reading not just for those who care about disability rights but for anyone with an interest in the continuing development of voting technology. As I argued in an article published last year, voting technology must serve a number of values, including security, transparency, and equality. Included within the value of equality is accessibility of the voting system for all voters, including people with a variety of disabilities. One of the things that's become increasingly apparent since 2000 is that no existing system of voting technology is perfect, when it comes to all of these values. If we are to converse constructively about how to improve our existing voting technology, we must take account of all of them and attempt to measure how well existing technologies do in serving each value.

Assessing how well existing systems serve these multiple values is, as I understand it, an important part of the Brennan Center's ongoing work on voting technology. There will undoubtedly be some disagreements on some of the specifics of their latest analysis. What we shouldn't lose sight of, however, is their recognition of the need for an honest discussion regarding the tradeoffs among the multiple objectives that we expect our election system to serve. This discussion has to include election officials, computer scientiests, social scientists, vendors, and lawyers.

The Brennan Center report makes abundantly clear that the transformation of voting technology is still a work in progress. As I've discussed here, this is the year in which HAVA's deadlines regarding accessibile equipment and the replacement of punch cards take effect. But 2006 is not really the end-point. As long as technology continues to improve -- and it will -- there should be a sustained commitment on the part of federal, state, and local government to developing and implementing better voting systems. It will be vital to consider what administrative and institutional arrangements will best protect the voting rights of all citizens (including those with disabilities) in the present, while allowing for the experimentation with new technologies that will be necessary in the future.

Update: Since my original post, it's been brought to my attention that the analysis of disability access is just one part of the Brennan Center's larger report on voting technology. My comments above focus on the accessibility chapter, and I've edited the post slightly in an attempt to make this clear.

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Moritz College of Law The Ohio State University