April 9, 2009

PD Inc. presented their recent voting machine testimony before the Maryland State Senate Committee on Education, Health and Environment Affairs.  The firm testified in support of Senate Bill 970, which seeks to extend the time frame for Maryland’s acquisition of a full inventory of state-of-the-art, electronic voting machines.  The company’s principals have advocated enactment of the measure primarily to offer small, technology-oriented companies the opportunity to build on the research and development (R&D) that has been accomplished to create voting machine prototypes exhibiting certain features.  These small businesses also need the additional time to have their machines fully tested, and have the embedded technology validated, as well as to position themselves to obtain federally-mandated certification within a given 45-day, State procurement solicitation period.  

It is anticipated that the newer prototypes will be designed to ensure software independence of election results by enabling each voter to generate a voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT).  The VVPAT would allow patrons to check their votes, and then correct any mistakes (perhaps with the assistance of an election administrator).  Moreover, these documents could be used to manually produce an accurate vote tally in the event that a recount becomes necessary. 

Other features of the newly designed and manufactured units would be intended to avoid disenfranchising members of minority sectors of the voting populace.  These groups would include vision-impaired and blind registrants, the hearing impaired and deaf, wheelchair-bound, severely disabled and elderly patrons, and those who have limited educational backgrounds or are not native English speakers.  Finally, although the existing direct-recording electronic (DRE) machines can be retrofitted to generate a paper ballot, printers would be incorporated into the new voting machines when those units are manufactured.  And the votes printed on ballots produced by the newer models could be recorded through the use of optical scan devices. 

Additionally, a founding engineer / partner of PD Inc. offered testimony, before the same Senate Committee on the same evening, to represent a local chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM).  In keeping with Association policy, the witness declined to take a position on the pending legislative measure.  However, he did point out that neither the 14th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, nor the four federal statutes that are either entirely or partly designed to prevent disenfranchisement, offer adequate protection of citizens’ voting rights.  (The four pieces of federal legislation are the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as amended, the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended and the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA].) 

The pertinent constitutional and statutory provisions are intended to ensure that everyone enjoys equal protection under the law, and that disabled patrons can receive voting assistance from a person of their choosing, polling places and voting equipment are accessible to the elderly and disabled, and the disabled shall not be excluded from, denied the benefits of, or discriminated against regarding access to certain public programs and activities.  However, Congress has delegated much of the authority to the states to set standards for accessibility, while declining to require states to guarantee that polling facilities will be accessible to disabled voters and that these patrons will be able to vote confidentially and independently. 

The ACM Baltimore chapter witness indicated that voting technologies should be developed and applied to reduce the need for election administrators’ intervention in the voting process.  This can largely be accomplished by producing voting machine archetypes whose design and functional attributes address the special needs of members of discrete groups or minority populations, such as those enumerated above.  It is worth noting that one of the advantages of electronic voting machine technology is that these computing devices can operate on software that can activate equipment or select communication modes, necessary to facilitate the participation of specific categories of voters.  Software incorporated into these units can also serve to meet other important objectives, such as maintaining vote confidentiality by encrypting machine-generated ballots that cannot be read prior to being electronically scanned.   

Important new features could include audio equipment to provide instructions and ballot preparation and submission prompts for blind patrons, ballots printed with larger fonts for the vision-impaired, sip and puff equipment to be used by quadriplegics, and others among the grievously disabled, and more favorable voting (work station) architecture / ergonomics for the wheelchair-bound.  The software of any given type of machine could also be written to display ballot instructions, issue descriptions, and candidates’ names and party affiliations in a range of foreign languages subject to voter selection.       

The next generation of voting machines and related technologies are expected contribute to attainment of the goal of broadening the base of constituencies to which our elected officials must respond.  As suggested in sections of this document shown above, this contribution will have value to the extent that software independence, through the use of VVPATS, is achieved, communication and physical barriers to the participation of members of discrete groups are removed, and the confidentiality and independence of the preparation and casting of ballots is preserved.        



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