Voting Rights for Blinks

“How much should government agencies pay to ensure full accessibility to people with disabilities?”  Is a question with a financial nature that any governmental body must ask when working on budgets.  “What determines the value, in dollars, of providing people with disabilities a manner to vote independently, one of the most sacred rights in American culture?”  Is a question with a more qualitative nature as it asks just how much equality people like us deserve in the land of the free.  Finally, “Are county government officials too stupid to figure out if a bid for accessible voting machines includes so much padding as to be ridiculously expensive?” Or, “Do President Bush’s friends at Diebold and the other voting machine manufacturers realize that county officials around the US have fairly minimal intellectual capabilities and, therefore, should have the tax payer’s money taken as quickly as possible from them lest they spend it on something foolish like a homeless shelter or art for the local museum?”

These questions came to mind when I read two articles that came to my inbox via Blind News in the past 24 hours.  One, an editorial, which I will include in its entirety below, came from the Illinois based Belleville News-Democrat a paper that includes the word “democrat” on its masthead but seems to question voting rights for people with disabilities and the other, a news report from an Illinois television program on WQAD TV
Titled, “Henry County spends $260,000 for one voter.”  Both items jump directly to the issue of the financial burden of providing accessible voting machines to people who require them during the recent Illinois primary election.

I cannot add much to the editorial so I will quote it entirely, verbatim, as it appeared in the Belleville News-Democrat:

    Posted on Fri, Mar. 24, 2006


    Too high a price at the polls

    Liberals love to say that if a government program benefits even one
Person, it is worth the cost. But in St. Clair County, even that low bar is too high to justify the new federally mandated voting machines for the disabled.

    Not one person in St. Clair County used the machines in the primary
Election Tuesday. Cost to the taxpayers, $921,000; benefits, zero.

    Madison County and East St. Louis had some voters use their special
Machines, although they didn’t have a count of how many. But no doubt the costs were phenomenally out of balance with the benefits achieved.

    Federal tax dollars covered most of the expense. Nationwide, the
Government spent about $2.8 billion to update voting equipment, $600
Million of that for equipment to accommodate people with hearing and visual impairments.

    This is what occurs when lawmakers try to pander to every
Special-interest group. Yes, it’s unfortunate that people with
Disabilities have a difficult time voting; yes, it would be nice if they could vote independently at their assigned polling place.

    But we also expect our elected leaders to be responsible with our
Money. Couldn’t we have one special voting machine at the county
courthouse rather than at each precinct? That would have saved millions, or at least freed up money for programs that would benefit more people, and not just on a couple days a year.

    The truth is, the government can’t afford to enact every good idea.
But politicians continue to try, which is why our taxes are sky-high.

End of Editorial

I’m not sure how many precincts St. Clair County, Illinois has but $921,000 seems an incredible amount to pay to put a single accessible voting machine in each polling place.  Thus, I return to a rephrased version of a question I posed above, “Were the government officials aware, in any way shape or form, of the typical cost for a piece of assistive technology or did Diebold and other automated voting machine manufacturers, all close friends of the administration, bilk the tax payers for a windfall profit that they could claim necessary to meet the ADA?”

The reactionary editorial blaming government spending on liberals and pointing out the population of people with disabilities as the culprit special interest in this case, obviously forgot that Bill Clinton left the Federal budget with a surplus but that’s all history.  Conservative Arizona Senator, John McCane, points to the Alaskan “bridge to nowhere” as the greatest boondoggle in history by demonstrating that it would cost less to purchase a private jet for everyone living on the island to which this bridge would go than it would be to build the bridge itself.  Conservative Alaska senators disagree and insist that this engineering wonder start construction in their state as soon as possible.  So much for conservatives keeping an eye on our money.

The editorial doesn’t provide enough numbers to do any arithmetic but spending over $900,000 to install voting machines accessible to people with hearing and vision impairments seems to me, a former assistive technology executive, a huge handout to the provider of said machines.  The editorial doesn’t state anything about the vetting process, the cost analysis or even if any AT companies, expert in delivering such solutions were consulted.

The WQAD television story, covered as an article on its web site which includes a link to a streaming video of the piece, about the cost of voting machines in Henry County, Illinois, does provide us with a few numbers with which we can play around.  “    Like every county throughout the United States, Henry County had to
Install special voting machines to meet the federal Americans with
Disabilities Act. 49 voting machines were purchased costing $260,000. But on Tuesday, only one person apparently used them,” says the web version of the article.

Before jumping into the arithmetic, I must say that the Henry County officials seem a bit less dense than those in St. Clair as they spent less than a third of the dollars to provide accessibility.  Bringing up my Windows calculator, up, though, shows that the Henry County bargain hunters paid a measly $5306 plus change for each accessible voting machine.  I’m sure if I called Sharon Spenser, executive VP of Sales at Freedom Scientific, with a request for a proposal on 50 PAC Mate QX 420 devices with “a little extra software to interface with voting machines,” we could come up with a deal costing (in my guestimation) under $4000 per unit.  If we didn’t care about the deaf/blind voters, we could do this with a speech only PAC Mate for under $2500 per unit.  Would Henry County pay me the difference or even half the difference if I proposed such a cost cutting solution?  Of course not, neither I nor Freedom Scientific has enough clout or cash to grease the wheels of the body politic and come out with a sweetheart deal in the end.

The article continues, “Rock Island County spent $750,000 on 60 machines for the disabled.  By my calculations, this comes to a whopping $12500 per unit.  At this price, it would have cost much less to send a limousine to each voter who required such accommodations, put them up in a luxury hotel for a few days, pay for all of their meals and give them each their own PAC Mate QX 440 with special voting software added that had much better security than the Diebold machines that hackers nationwide have proven to have holes in their protection against tampering.

I’m also highly confident that if any of the AT CEOs received a phone call from any of these counties that they would accommodate them at a lower price, with better devices and a greater level of accuracy.  I know most of these CEOs personally and can state that Lee or Doug or Ben or Mike or Eduard or anyone I’m leaving out would jump for such a gig.  I’m confident they would do so at a municipal, county, state or Federal basis and come in with a cost far lower than our President’s good buddies up in Ohio.

The television story, apparently trying to show they have some level of sensitivity to the cause of people with disabilities, ends with, “    In fact, a survey shows one in ten polling places nationwide aren’t
even wheelchair accessible. And 80-percent of people with vision problems need help filling out their ballots.”  These statistics, although provided without a source, probably come close to accuracy.  

The problem, totally ignored by both of these articles, though, has nothing to do with the cost of accessibility and everything to do with sweetheart government contracts.  Look at the no bid deals that the Vice President’s former employer has taken out of Iraq.  Let’s not forget how KBR also got no bid contracts to help clean up the flood damage in New Orleans, why not assume that a reasonable public accommodation to provide people like me with access to my right as a patriotic American citizen to exercise my right to vote wouldn’t find its way into the money grubbing financial feeding trough that has become our Federal budget?

Blaming the blind people for the deficit is almost funny.  This administration has cut way back on enforcement of Section 508, to “save the taxpayers’ money,” their AG has taken the side of the defendant in every ADA case in which the administration has participated and who can even remember Section 255 being discussed, let alone enforced?

I suppose we should expect this.  If we scour the president’s statements on discrimination, you will find that he has expressed outrage exactly once – when the victim of the discrimination was a multi-billion dollar corporation from the UAE vying to purchase some US port businesses.  There, in the White House rose garden, President W. stood with a teardrop dangling from his eye, sniffling at the purely overt injustice that cripples billionaire multi-national corporations.  As Bill Clinton would have said, “I feel their pain.”


In an update on the neo-nazi story I ran yesterday, it turns out that the gang killed the wrong guy.  It seems that Shawn A. Plott, the fellow whom you might remember as having been thrown out of a biker gang called the “Iron Coffins” for being too mean, had intended to kill Patricia Wells’ African American boyfriend.  Instead, these candidates for Rhodes Scholarships stabbed 17 year old Kristofer King to death for sleeping in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Someone asked me if I feared reprisals from white supremacist groups over the articles I publish here.  Given the fact that many such people live in Florida, I might concern myself with my safety as these people don’t seem to take criticism very well.  On the other hand, though, I don’t think I need to hurry out to buy my shotgun too soon as these Cro-Magnons, while violent, don’t seem capable of hitting the target.  Thus, if one came for me, I’d probably be safer than any of my neighbors or even my 20 pound dog as the neo-fascists seem so intensely incompetent.

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I'm an accessibility advocate working on issues involving technology and people with print impairment. I'm a stoner, crackpot, hacker and all around decent fellow. I blog at this site and occasionally contribute to Skepchick. I'm a skeptic, atheist, humanist and all around left wing sort. You can follow this blog in your favorite RSS reader, and you can also view my Twitter profile (@gonz_blinko) and follow me there.

3 thoughts on “Voting Rights for Blinks”

  1. I think this is the perfect storm for accessibility price-gouging. Voting system vendors have to create closed systems so they can be certified for security. They know that there’s a magic tree called ADA that they can shake and get more money. So they do the minimum necessary to make a device that works in that closed system and complies with ADA, and they get the money. Meanwhile, the county elections board doesn’t have the first clue that this is happening.

    Sounds like another reason to call for open-source voting systems to me. In the grand scheme of things, PWDs are the last people anyone should blame for that expenditure.

  2. We are using the Diebolt systems here in IL, which St. Clair County may or may not be using. But ehre are three other points the editor failed to consider:
    1. Voter turnout is usually MUCH lower during the primaries, and while there may have only been one voter for that election, that doesn’t mean the machine will never get used again.
    2. These machines can be used by ANY voter. Like a talking ATM, they are specially configured to provide a talking interface, but normally operate in the same fashion as other electronic voting machines at the poll.
    3. These machines also provide a UI in multiple languages, so they serve more than just the disabled population.

  3. I found this article very interesting. Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to consult with AT vendors and see what they come up with. As far as my own voting experience, I have never used an accessible voting machine. Actually during the primary elections of a couple weeks ago, a machine with audio output was provided at my polling place but the audio wasn’t working. So my roommate, who is legally blind, was kind enough to let the election judges know that I, a only having light perception, would be coming with someone fully sighted to assist me. I hope to be able to use one of these accessible voting machines soon though. One other point I would like to raise is the issue of whether or not the votes of the disabled really do count. Based on recent events I have to question whether or not our votes really do count.

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