Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Blind demand voting rights

Lawsuit seeks end to need for assistance

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The National Federation of the Blind accused Ohio elections officials Tuesday of violating federal law because they have failed to buy voting machines that are accessible by blind voters.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court in Cincinnati, the organization asked a judge to order state officials to purchase voting equipment that would allow the blind to vote without assistance from a third party.

Ohio's existing system, which uses either punch cards or optical-scan machines, requires a friend, family member or poll worker to read the ballot to blind voters and cast their vote for them.

"Blind voters in Ohio want to vote the same way that sighted Ohioans cast their ballots - secretly and independently at their local polling places," said Barbara Pierce, president of the Ohio branch of the National Federation of the Blind. "We continue to be denied the right to do so."

Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell approved the purchase of voting machines for the blind in March as part of a $133 million overhaul of Ohio's elections system.

But the Ohio Controlling Board delayed the purchase pending recommendations from the Ohio House and Senate. Board members said they were concerned about the security of the systems Blackwell recommended and wanted to wait until they had more information.

"Security is one of their top priorities," said Lisa Dodge, president of the Controlling Board. "They want to be sure it is a system that works, that they feel comfortable with."

Blackwell has said the systems he approved have been used in other states without problems and are both efficient and secure.

The board's approval is necessary because it controls the release of the federal money that will cover the cost of the new elections system. The funding is provided as part of the Help America Vote Act, which Congress approved in hopes of replacing outdated voting equipment in time for the 2004 presidential elections.

A Blackwell spokesman, Carlo LoParo, said the new equipment could be in place in time for the November election if the Controlling Board approves the purchase soon. The board's next meeting is May 3.

Dodge said she's unsure how quickly the board will be able to act. "There's just not the support on the board right now to vote on these items until these recommendations are considered," she said.

The National Federation of the Blind, with 50,000 members nationwide, has been successful with similar lawsuits in Florida and Maryland.

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