Courts & Crime

On-line voting battle pits the blind vs. the blind

Dallas Kettner, a King County Elections accessible voting unit monitor, right, helps Seattle, Washington, resident Maria Fabian, left, who is blind, to a voting machine on Tuesday, November 2, 2010, at Union Station in Seattle. (Ken Lambert/Seattle Times/MCT)
Dallas Kettner, a King County Elections accessible voting unit monitor, right, helps Seattle, Washington, resident Maria Fabian, left, who is blind, to a voting machine on Tuesday, November 2, 2010, at Union Station in Seattle. (Ken Lambert/Seattle Times/MCT) MCT

Maryland’s Board of Elections fell one vote short last month of the super-majority needed to inch the state toward on-line voting, despite cyber experts’ warnings that such balloting could easily be hacked, with votes even switched to other candidates.

Now, three months before this fall’s elections, the issue has morphed into a legal battle pitting the blind vs. the blind.

It’s a fight with plenty of intrigue behind it and nationwide implications in the debate over whether cyber security is ready for electronic voting.

The National Federation of the Blind Inc., which touts itself as the recognized voice of blind Americans and their families, filed a federal court suit in May seeking to compel the state elections board to make its newly developed online ballot-marking system available so that all disabled people could cast absentee ballots via the internet this fall.

It’s a suit that likely wasn’t unwelcome to the three board members who voted to implement the system and to state Election Director Linda Lamone, a big advocate of electronic voting.

But over the weekend, the American Council of the Blind of Maryland, along with three blind residents and two nonprofit groups that have fought internet voting, intervened in the case filed in Baltimore. They contend that the board’s online balloting tool is both flawed and insecure.

During demonstrations of the voting tool, three blind voters couldn’t fully access their ballots, the interveners’ suit said.

Maryland is not among the 31 states that are permitting online or email voting, especially for soldiers and other Americans living abroad, despite warnings from numerous cyber experts that voting over the internet is highly vulnerable to hacking.

However, the state’s plan for electronic assistance in absentee balloting inches in that direction. It provides for on-line ballot marking, in which a disabled voter could mark his absentee ballot on the internet, then print it out and mail it in. But the Council’s suit alleges that the system’s creation of an electronic bar code, with signals bouncing back and forth between servers and computers, tablets or cell phones, would leave those votes “susceptible to invasion, fraud or observation.”

Alex Halderman, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at the University of Michigan who hacked into a proposed online voting system in the District of Columbia during a 2010 test run, believes that Maryland’s proposed system would put disabled voters “in greater danger of having their votes manipulated or revealed than non-disabled voters,” the Council’s suit said.

"Several members of the State Board of Elections and state election director Lamone expressed intent to certify and implement this system – in agreement with the same people that are suing them – even though the Board's own study found the system was inaccessible to people with visual impairments,” said Robert Ferraro, co-director of SAVE our Votes, one of the two watchdog groups that intervened.

“Perhaps this is why the Board didn't submit to the court the accessibility study or raise the security issues that have been documented,” he said. “We felt we needed to intervene for all the facts to be heard and for the voters of MD to be properly represented.", a group that has campaigned for a verifiable paper trail for all electronic votes, is also among the interveners. Maryland’s proposed absentee system, which allows voting from home, does not leave a way to verify that a voter’s electronic choices weren’t tampered with before they were encoded.

The dispute between factions representing blind Americans brings to a head simmering tensions between election watchdogs and the Federation that date back more than a decade and stem in part from the Federation’s financial ties to Diebold, a major manufacturer of electronic voting machines.

In 2001, the group sued Diebold Inc., the parent of Diebold Elections Systems, alleging that the design of bank ATM machines violated the Americans with Disabilities Act because they were inaccessible to the blind. In a settlement a year later, the Federation and Diebold not only agreed to collaborate in developing a way to simplify Diebold’s voice-guidance capabilities, but Diebold pledged to donate $1 million over five years toward the construction of a Federation Research and Training Institute for the Blind.

Maryland was an unsurprising venue for the battle of the blind, because Lamone has long favored electronic voting and more recently got aboard the push for online balloting. She even succeeded in landing a $653,000 grant from a controversial Pentagon unit a few years ago so the state could develop a new on-line system.

The Federation’s suit fits neatly with her agenda, just as the group has lined up with Lamone on electronic voting for years.

In July, the Federation ratcheted the discussion up a notch, issuing a resolution urging states that have online ballot-marking systems similar to Maryland’s to allow all disabled voters to use them this fall.

“We aren’t against security, but blind people must be able to cast a private and independent vote,” the group’s chief spokesman, Chris Danielsen, said. “We certainly do not want to take any unnecessary risks with our votes, but we believe that the need for security must be appropriately balanced with the rights of voters with disabilities.”