Elections Commission Does Not Impair Disability Rights

by Rich Matthews on February 23, 2009

On February 18, Robert Planthold published an article in BeyondChron criticizing his perceived treatment by the Board of Supervisors’ Rules Committee and certain actions of the Elections Commission six months ago. It is unfortunate that Mr. Planthold would write such an uninformed and unfounded piece, potentially arousing unnecessary alarm on the part of citizens who are concerned about disabled accessibility in the voting process. His concerns about the Elections Commission are at odds with the facts, and I believe these facts could have been discovered with modest effort.

Let me say clearly at the outset: No actions by the Elections Commission has or would diminish accessibility to voting by disabled persons. Period. It would not only be illegal to do so under federal and state law, it would be wrong.

In his letter, Mr. Planthold cites a policy that was first discussed in July 2008 and, as was easily discoverable in the posted minutes, was adopted unanimously on August 20, 2008. He misstates and/or misunderstands that policy. It is included in the Appendix, below, in its entirety. To explain that policy, let me provide some background about voting systems.

Voting Systems Designed For Disabled Access
One of the most common systems for disabled accessible voting is the touch-screen interface. Touch-screen machines also offer certain other conveniences and efficiencies: numerous languages can be loaded onto the machine, pictures of candidates can be included if desired, voters can “uncheck” their choices to correct their errors, and so on. They come in two types, but either way, the voter registers a vote by touching a screen:

  • Direct Recording Entry (DRE), on which the vote is captured on a computer card, then generally that card is read by another computer, or
  • Ballot Marking Device, on which the vote is mechanically marked onto a paper ballot; the ballot is then counted by scanner, and the machine neither retains nor tabulates the vote.

So in either case, the voter touches a screen to register his or her votes, but the essential difference is whether the person’s votes will then live on a chip (DRE) or on a paper ballot card (ballot marking device).

San Francisco currently has a DRE type of touch-screen machine that is available for disabled voters; the model is called “Edge,” manufactured by Sequoia. The previous system for disabled voters was a ballot marking device called the Automark by ES&S, our previous vendor. Los Angeles County uses the Ink-a-Vote ballot marking device. It should be noted that Sequoia’s Edge, like ES&S’s Automark before it, also offers an audio option for vision-impaired voters, as well as a sip-and-puff port for voters who use them.

Secretary of State Certification of Voting Systems
It is crucial to understand two things before we go further:

  • All voting systems must be certified for use by the state’s Secretary of State, and these certifications are often conditional.
  • Following a top-to-bottom review of all voting systems in use in California, Secretary of State Debra Bowen decertified the Sequoia Edge because of security concerns related to its software, and recertified it only for use by disabled persons and with considerable conditions. Indeed, the Secretary of State’s certification of our Edge DRE machine is 15 pages long, but the first five pages of that are complete criticism of the machine’s security. The Secretary’s conditional certification – the governing document of our usage of the Edge system and required reading for anyone who purports to be informed about voting systems – may be viewed here.

It is also important to know that due to certain conditions of usage, San Francisco protocol does not use the Edge DRE to count the votes, but rather requires that all votes cast on the Edge must later be “remade”—that is, copied by hand onto standard paper ballot cards by Department of Elections employees several days after election day. These remade cards are then processed through the central tabulator for automated counting. Certainly, anyone who purports to care about the process of vote capture and tabulation would be interested to know this.

Elections Commission Actions in 2008 Regarding DRE Usage
The Pollworker Manual at the start of 2008 called for the pollworkers to say to voters, “You will be given a paper ballot unless you would prefer to use the touch-screen.” This was language that was created by the Department of Elections to strike the balance of informing all voters of the availability of the touch-screen device, but not advocate its use. Again, the conditions of our certification are that it is for disabled access, but certainly, nobody in the world of elections is going to presume to make that determination for voters, so we must inform all voters without accidentally encouraging the use of the DRE by voters for whom the Secretary of State does not permit its use.

The Elections Commission became concerned that during the February 2008 primary election a surprisingly large number of voters were using the DRE rather than using pen on paper. If that many disabled persons voted, then that would be fine, but a review of the number of DRE users at each polling place revealed an anomaly: 14 precincts (out of 561) accounted for half the total DRE usage; that is 2.1 percent of precincts comprised half the number of DRE users. For comparison, 461 precincts had zero DRE users, and most of the rest had one or two users. Please remember that the Secretary of State’s certification of the Edge DRE is only for accessibility for disabled voters.

Following this discovery, in the June 2008 election, I visited the polling places that accounted for nearly half of all DRE usage in February to attempt to determine why they were so anomalous. It was discovered that the persons managing those polling places were deviating from the Pollworker Manual by urging voters to use the Edge DRE rather than the scripted offer to use it. After ongoing conversations between the Commission and the Department following the June election, the Commission was concerned about the continuing “freelancing” by certain pollworkers, as well as the continuing misgivings many voters share of having votes recorded and stored on a computer card rather than registered on paper ballot cards—either by hand or machine.

Therefore, pursuant to its authority under San Francisco Charter section 13.103.5 to set policy for San Francisco elections, on August 20, 2008, the Commission adopted the policy that San Francisco prefers voting systems that capture votes on paper rather than on a computer card. Again, this does not mean moving away from touch-screen devices in any way, nor does it impinge on disabled access whatsoever. Indeed, by moving toward a touch-screen ballot marking device, we are moving away from a system on which disabled persons’ votes are captured on the DRE and then recopied onto ballot cards by other people after election day and fed through the central tabulator. In other words, everyone’s votes would be treated alike.

In the meantime, this policy calls for the Department to ensure that pollworkers follow the original script in the Pollworker Manual at the beginning of 2008 which informs voters of the availability of the touch-screen device if they prefer to use it, but not to encourage its use in a way that would violate our conditions for certification nor increase usage on equipment that does not enjoy widespread trust in all its aspects. The Commission felt this was the right balance of ensuring disabled access to equipment for that purpose, while conforming with Secretary of State mandates, as well as ensuring that the majority of voters are using equipment that carries more voter confidence than DREs.

Sadly, Mr. Planthold’s complaints show no understanding of any of this background. He appears to be under the mistaken impression that the choice is between DRE or forcing voters to use a pen on paper, and thus if DRE isn’t available, then that means people who have difficulty using a pen on paper would have their needs ignored. As anyone who understands elections issues and voting systems already knows, that is not true. We need only look at our equipment up until late 2007 or the nation’s most populous county to know that.

Neither the law nor practicality nor human decency permit anyone in the world of elections to be unmindful of the needs of disabled voters. Voters have different needs and preferences. Sometimes there is competition among the issues of security, voter confidence, and yes, convenience of the voter and the ease of administration.

There are excellent and valid discussions and debates to be had over how to strike the balance between voter confidence in its voting systems, frayed in 2000 and 2004, versus systems that satisfy as many differently situated voters as possible. There are excellent and valid discussions to be had over what constitutes sufficiently equal opportunity for voters to cast their own ballots with dignity and independence—does that mean that every person must vote on the same device, or does it mean that every person’s vote must be treated the same (contrary to what is happening now with the current DRE configuration)?

Is it reasonable to force all voters to use the same device when it would inconvenience those voters who would have to stand in line to use the one or two touch-screens in the polling place rather than fan out across the polling place with pens and ballot cards if they are physically capable of doing so? Indeed, how would disabled voters feel if they had to wait in long lines to vote due to the requirement that all voters use the touch-screen machines? These are all valid issues that touch on many competing interests which a community must balance. It is unfortunate that Mr. Planthold does not raise them.

The Reappointment of Commissioner Gerard Gleason
Lastly, Mr. Planthold seems to suggest that it was a miscarriage of justice that the Rules Committee voted 3-0 to recommend the reappointment of incumbent Commissioner Gerard Gleason to the Elections Commission rather than recommend Mr. Planthold.

Let it be noted that Commissioner Gleason spent four years working in a very senior position in the Department of Elections, producing the voter information pamphlet and designing the ballot— highly complicated functions which accounted for approximately two-thirds of the Department’s budget. Commissioner Gleason has just completed a five year term as Commissioner in which he never missed a meeting. He chaired the Commission’s budget & oversight committee for two years until his election in January 2008 to be the Commission’s president, and was recently reappointed to the budget & oversight committee by the new president. Three years ago, Commissioner Gleason organized and conducted a public hearing on voting systems. Commissioner Gleason has worked in the field for the last 19 consecutive elections, either running a polling place or serving as a field election deputy. No San Franciscan outside the Department of Elections knows more or better understands the practical and philosophical issues related to elections than Gerard Gleason. That is incontrovertible.

In contrast, Mr. Planthold has never attended an Elections Commission meeting to the memory of any commissioner, has made material misstatements to both the Board of Education and the Board of Supervisors’ Rules Committee when seeking their respective appointments to the Elections Commission, did some apparently poor research into the commission minutes, and appears to fail to understand the basics of voting systems.

None of this is to malign Mr. Planthold nor to minimize his historical valuable advocacy on behalf of disabled persons, but the notion that he was a superior candidate for the Elections Commission is, to say the least, a matter of opinion.

Rich Matthews is an Elections Commissioner writing as a private citizen.

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