Braille Monitor                         May 2021

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League of Women Voters and Security Pundits Oppose Accessible Voting in Colorado

by Curtis Chong

Curtis ChongFrom the Editor: The right to vote privately and independently would seem to be one of those things everyone could get behind. A system already exists for military people away from home to vote electronically, yet our issue is far too often argued against in terms that we can’t just open the system up to everyone. The systems should be opened so that every legitimate voter can vote privately, independently, and in a manner that doesn’t require extraordinary effort and negotiation. One of the warriors out to see that this happens in Colorado is Curtis Chong, and this is what he says:

In an article entitled Vote by Mail Ballot Now Accessible to Blind Coloradans (see the Braille Monitor, January, 2020), I reported that Colorado had established an accessible ballot marking system which registered voters with disabilities, including the blind, could use to accessibly mark and print their ballots. Disabled voters would visit the appropriate website, bring up their ballots, mark and print them, and mail the ballot and signed ballot application to their county clerk. The system worked well, as long as the voter had a working printer. For voters who did not have access to a printer, this new and accessible ballot-marking system was not available to them. It turns out that a lot of people did not have printers. So, last fall, the members of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado voted unanimously to change this situation.

With the help of our good friend state Senator Jessie Danielson, SB21-188 was introduced during the 2021 Colorado legislative session. This bill would enable voters with disabilities to return their ballots electronically. The National Federation of the Blind of Colorado met with representatives from the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. We agreed that electronic ballot return for voters with disabilities would include fax, email, and a secure web portal—exactly the same methods used by overseas and military voters. We also agreed on a method whereby voters who could not sign their names on screen could use their state IDs in lieu of a “wet” signature. At no time during our discussions did the Secretary of State raise any concerns with us about security issues surrounding electronic ballot return. In fact, we were gratified at the tremendous display of support for SB21-188 conveyed by the people with whom we met.

Once SB21-188 went public, advocates from the disability community started to receive emails opposing the bill. Consider the following email from the League of Women Voters dated April 3, 2021:

Dear Ms. Reiskin (CO Cross-Disability Coalition), Mr. LaBarre (NFBCO) and the CO Center for the Blind,
I’m part of the team of Colorado League of Women Voters (mostly volunteer) lobbyists that is following election bills this year. We recently became aware of SB21-188 – Electronic Ballot Return for Disabled Voters. We would like to discuss the bill with you. A colleague has also reached out to the bill sponsor and received more details, and I listened to the SB19-202 hearings two years ago, where Mr. LaBarre was the first speaker providing testimony. On a personal note, I grew up with a blind grandmother, and my mother-in-law is legally blind and on her third guide dog. My husband is also disabled; his entire left arm was amputated in 2004.
The national LWV takes voting very seriously, as you probably know. LWVUS wants to empower voters, but also ensure election security as much as possible. The gold standard for elections is a voter-verifiable paper ballot. An electronically submitted ballot is not a paper ballot that has been verified by the voter. Whenever possible, LWVUS encourages submission of a paper ballot. Military personnel stationed for six months in a submarine in the ocean or an astronaut on the International Space Station need the ability to submit a ballot electronically, and we don’t want to disenfranchise anybody, but we don’t want to open wide the floodgates to excessive submission of electronic ballots. We risk jeopardizing Colorado’s reputation as a leader in election security if we allow the one in six Americans who are disabled to submit ballots electronically.
Two years ago, before passage of SB19-202, also sponsored by Sen Danielson, the bill was amended to clarify that voters who receive an electronic ballot under the disability provision are required to print out and submit a paper ballot. We have spoken to election integrity experts about the new SB-188 bill. The integrity of our elections continues to mandate that the voter submit a paper ballot whenever possible. The “Stop the Steal” movement and accusations against Dominion Voting Systems (headquartered in Colorado) have only served to increase the level of distrust in our elections.
We are wondering if the problem of not having a printer could be solved by a disabled person applying for an emergency ballot. Currently, there are two groups of people who can submit a ballot electronically–UOCAVA (military and overseas) voters and emergency ballot voters. More and more people want to do everything online, but voting over the internet is not secure and does not protect the secrecy of the ballot. We should discourage internet voting while ensuring that nobody is disenfranchised. We should reserve electronic submission of ballots for those who really need it. Would an emergency ballot application be any more work than applying for an electronic ballot using the disability provision?
An argument for allowing electronic submission of ballots is “convenience,” which in turn leads to increased voter turnout. The League strongly supports increasing voter turnout, but continues to have concerns about electronic ballot submission. Apparently, a more widespread obstacle to returning mail ballots, especially for young people, is finding a postage stamp. Some other states currently have, and LWVCO would probably support, postage-paid ballot return. Such a change would facilitate convenience for many voters, including disabled voters, without jeopardizing election security.
The testimony in SB19-202 highlighted lack of privacy and secrecy when blind people cast a ballot because, if a blind person did not successfully use an audio-enabled ballot-marking device at a voter service and polling center, then they had to reveal their ballot selections to the person manually filling in the ballot. We are wondering if disabled voters realize that their electronically submitted ballots are not secret ballots and a CO voter must waive their right to a secret ballot when submitting an electronic ballot.
Thank you for listening to our concerns. We look forward to continuing this conversation with you.
Celeste Landry

On April 6, SB21-188 was heard before the Senate State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee. Here is my summation of the points made by the folks opposing the bill:

  1. Colorado’s election system is already fraught with security loopholes—even that part of the system which today permits voters with disabilities to receive and mark their ballots electronically.
  2. If electronic ballot return becomes a reality, the one in six Coloradans who have a disability will swamp the system. Even worse, voters who do not have a disability will want to take advantage of the convenience that electronic ballot return has to offer and falsely claim a disability simply to take advantage of this convenience.
  3. If a person with a disability does not have a printer and cannot, therefore, use Colorado’s existing electronic and accessible ballot marking system, this is more of an inconvenience—not a barrier to equal participation in the electoral process.

Noel Runyan, a blind electrical engineer and computer scientist from California, said in his written testimony that,

“…I don't think we should currently be legislating any systems that allow electronic return of ballots.…We currently do not have solutions that can assure adequate ballot privacy nor solutions that can limit electronic ballot return to only the voters who need accessible voting and cannot personally print their ballot.… Allowing voters to self-identify themselves as needing electronic ballot return could lead to an uncontrollable voting fraud disaster.”

The opposition of the League of Women Voters and security pundits notwithstanding, SB21-188 was voted out of committee on a partisan vote on April 6, and on April 9, it passed the full Senate on second reading. After its third reading, we expect the bill to move on to the Colorado State House of Representatives.

In response to Celeste Landry, Noel Runyan, and the other people who oppose SB21-188, I have these closing points to make:

  1. Colorado’s accessible ballot marking system has been used successfully in no less than four elections without a whiff of significant fraud. More importantly, the voters who used this system were empowered and gained increased feeling of independence.
  2. Colorado’s system enabling overseas and military voters to return their ballots using fax, email, or secure web portal has likewise not been plagued by any widespread fraudulent activity. Enabling voters with disabilities to use these same systems poses no additional risk.
  3. SB21-188 in no way abandons the gold standard of a paper ballot. Even if a ballot is delivered electronically, secure procedures are in place to print the electronic ballot using the same layout and paper as every other ballot, thus maintaining a paper record and the anonymity of the voter with a disability who chooses to use the system. Today, this same procedure is used for ballots returned remotely by overseas and military voters and by voters with disabilities who have a printer, receive their ballots electronically, and mail in their voted ballots.
  4. The number of voters in Colorado who used the existing electronic accessible ballot marking system during the last general election was relatively small—numbering less than two hundred. The assertion that an electronic ballot return system would be saturated with fraudulent voters and dishonest votes is, at best, wild speculation.
  5. Electronic ballot marking and return are not “conveniences” for people with disabilities, contrary to what some people have claimed. Electronic ballot marking and return offer a level of access which puts people with disabilities on an equal footing with other voters.
  6. Today, a lot of sensitive information moves securely across the internet. We use the internet to send documents, pictures, sensitive legal information, and even money. For many of us, having the ability to deposit a check into our bank account using our smartphone has become a necessity in light of the coronavirus pandemic. It is difficult to imagine how returning my ballot electronically can be any less secure than using the internet to move large sums of money between my bank accounts. In the final analysis, returning my ballot electronically is an action which I, a person who happens to be blind, should be able to choose, knowing that there might be some risk involved with the transaction.
Well-intentioned but misguided security advocates who want to look after blind people like me—in spite of our proven ability to look after our own interests—harkens back to the days when service agencies for the blind inappropriately regarded themselves as our caretakers instead of providers of needed service. We, the blind, have every right to speak for ourselves, and I for one do not appreciate an organization such as the League of Women Voters, which is supposed to stay clear of politics, lobbying against something which the blind and otherwise disabled citizens of Colorado clearly want—that being the right to submit our votes without having to visit a polling center, regardless of whether or not we happen to have a printer.

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