State Adopts New Policy on Accessible Ballots

ballot-1294935_1280Maryland’s voting system requires voters to cast their vote using a pre-printed paper ballot. But many people with disabilities cannot mark paper ballots without assistance, so they rely on special voting machines — known as ballot marking devices (BMDs) — that are equipped with earphones and other modifications.

There are growing concerns that ballots cast by disabled voters are segregated and too easily identifiable in the overall collection of ballots. That’s because the paper ballot used with BMDs looks different in size and shape than the pre-printed ballots that are hand marked.

In order to address these concerns, the Maryland State Board of Elections (SBE) requires that each polling place provide at least one BMD on Election Day to provide access for voters with disabilities. The policy generally limits the use of the BMDs but still makes them available as an accessible option for voters and requires election judges to make sure that at least two voters use a ballot marking device during a voting day.

According to Maryland Matters, SBE is looking to beef up its policy by asking election judges to encourage more voters to use BMDs during primary and general elections.

Looking ahead, lawmakers also urged the state to consider finding a new voting system that either requires all voters to use an accessible option or find a ballot-marking device that generates a paper ballot identical to the ones used by the general public.

On Thursday, the board opted to continue use of the state’s existing leased machines, with a goal to ensure that at least five ballots are cast by the devices at each precinct, an effort to increase use of the machines and further anonymize ExpressVote ballots.

Nikki Charlson, the deputy administrator at the State Board of Elections, said she has contacted ExpressVote maker Election Systems & Software about increasing the number of leased machines in Maryland. Pending other states’ bids, there aren’t enough existing machines to accommodate universal use in Maryland, but the state could add at least some additional machines by 2020, she said.

Background

State law requires the State’s voting system to provide access to voters with disabilities that is equivalent to access afforded voters without disabilities without creating a segregated ballot for voters with disabilities; ensure independent, private casting, inspection, verification, and correction of secret ballots by voters with disabilities in an accessible media by both visual and nonvisual means, including synchronized audio output and enhanced visual display; and comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Help America Vote Act.

At least one voting system in each polling place on Election Day must provide access for voters with disabilities in compliance with the above requirements. The State’s voting system includes ballot marking devices, which allow voters to use a touchscreen to produce a paper ballot containing the voter’s choices (to then be fed into a ballot scanner/tabulator) and offer accessibility features for voters with disabilities.

Because of concerns that arose prior to the 2016 elections about the limited number of candidate names that could be displayed on a single screen and the logic associated with navigating within and between contests, SBE limited the extent to which the ballot marking devices were made available to voters in the 2016 elections.

Earlier this year, MACo opposed HB 565/SB 363 – Election Law – Voting Systems – Accessibility for Voters With Disabilities. The bill sought to ensure that voters with disabilities are provided specified access to voting that is equivalent to access afforded voters without disabilities. MACo does not raise policy objections with this goal – county concerns are merely practical and cost-driven.

The bill would have required each voter to use a ballot marking device that is accessible to voters with disabilities to vote at an early voting center or an Election Day polling place. The legislation would have placed a very substantial administrative and cost burden onto local Boards of Elections, whose functions are supported by county funding.

Furthermore, local Boards of Elections indicated substantial costs for information technology personnel to test, prepare, troubleshoot, and maintain the additional ballot marking devices.

According to the bill’s fiscal and policy note, county expenditures would increase by $6 million per election cycle. Under state law, counties have no choice but to fund these costs – competing for limited local funds against education, public safety, roadway maintenance, and other essential public services.

HB 565 was referred to a summer study by the House Ways and Means Committee. SBE and the Maryland Association of Election Officials (MAEO) pledged to work with advocates from the disabilities community to address concerns over access to BMDs and voter privacy.

Stay tuned to Conduit Street for more information.

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