Fewer barriers New voting machines will boost access.

Posted: April 26, 2001

In just months, Philadelphia could boast the latest touch-screen voting technology. Or the city could be that much closer to a day when its polling apparatus sputters out.

Until last week, bragging rights seemed assured. Now a lawsuit on behalf of disabled voters challenges the city's years-long effort to modernize its voting machinery.

Nine disabled city residents represented by a national disabilities' rights group make what appear to be straightforward demands:

The city should "commit to a date by which all polling places will be made accessible."

City election officials should purchase audio-equipped voting machines accessible to blind voters.

But meeting those demands would be anything but straightforward. In an old city with limited resources, it's a dream to imagine every neighborhood polling place can offer both wheelchair access and the two handicapped parking spots specified by state law.

Fewer than 50 polls meet those requirements fully. Yet more than 400 voting sites can accommodate voters in wheelchairs; they just lack the parking spaces.

That's why the city has offered alternatives for years. Anyone disabled or over 65 has been able to vote by mail ballot. These voters also can cast ballots - with help, if needed - at City Hall, reachable by SEPTA or Paratransit.

Can the city do more? Yes, and it should. As technology expands, a dozen or so centralized polling places should be set up around the city.

What's one major step already in the works? Those new, electronic voting machines. They're wheelchair accessible and can display ballots in large type for sight-impaired voters. That's a quantum leap forward, inasmuch as the city's current mechanical voting machines are inaccessible to many.

And the new machines are critical to running elections, period. Do nothing, and the city could soon face a dire shortage of functioning voting machines. In the post-chad era, the touch-screen machines also offer reliability, accuracy and the ability to produce speedy vote totals on election night.

What they won't do is "talk" to blind voters as disabled activists demand. After a careful review of voting technology, the city wisely opted to order 3,500 machines that display a full ballot - rather than the scrolling-display machines that gave Montgomery County voters fits. The full-face machine does not come with audio. In fact, state election officials have yet to approve an audio-equipped balloting device.

On balance, this overdue $19.3 million investment will make city polling places more accessible than ever to people with disabilities. Halting the purchase makes no sense. No court should erect that barrier.

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