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For years, William Poole Jr., who is blind, was frustrated when he voted in Maryland because his vote was not a secret. Since the voting machines were inaccessible to the visually impaired, he had to have someone in the voting booth with him to read the ballot, and then tell that person how he wanted to vote. Now he’s at the forefront of a movement that has spread to several other states — filing federal class actions aimed at forcing state and local election officials to provide voting devices that can be used by the disabled. Such machines — typically a kind of laptop with a touch screen and earphones — are required under the Help Americans Vote Act passed by Congress after the contentious 2000 presidential election. But many state and county officials say they haven’t bought the new machines because the federal government hasn’t provided the promised money. “This case asks the state of Maryland and Baltimore County to act on their promises to end discrimination against blind and visually impaired voters at the polling place. Having sight should not be a precondition of casting a secret ballot,” said Andrew M. Dansicker of Baltimore-based Venable’s Washington, D.C., offfice, lead attorney in the Poole case. His co-counsel are Gabrielle Moses and Jason Sayers. A complaint was originally filed by Poole on Election Day in 2002, after poll officials would not let him vote with a Braille-type template he developed to use with the voting machine. A 30-page amended complaint was recently filed in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of some 20,000 blind or visually impaired people in Baltimore County. The complaint alleges violations of both the Constitution and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Poole v. Baltimore County and Maryland Board of Elections, No. 02-3610 (D. Md.). Class actions have also been filed around the country — including Florida, the District of Columbia, Philadelphia and Texas, although none of the classes was certified. The suit in Duval County, Fla., is still going on, according to Jim Dickson, head of the American Association of People With Disabilities, which is the lead plaintiff. AAPD v. Hood, No. 3:01-CV-1275-J-21TJC, (M.D. Fla.). The District of Columbia has agreed to provide accessible machines, Dickson noted, and a settlement is in the works in Philadelphia. In Texas, the plaintiffs lost in appellate court, but a state law was passed requiring that any new voting system purchased must have secret-ballot applications for the blind and physically impaired, Dickson said. The Maryland dispute is “a matter of money — the new machines are expensive, $3,000 to $5,000 each to put into each precinct,” Dansicker said. “So counties have been trying to put it off. But we feel the time has come. We’ve been negotiating for years, and each time, the state would change its mind and delay.” Judith A. Armold, a Maryland assistant attorney general, said the state put the new machines in four counties for the 2002 election and hopes to have them in every precinct by the 2004 elections or the 2006 deadline set by Congress. “But the federal government still hasn’t provided the money and the state has no money for more election equipment of any kind,” Armold added. “We are still deciding what to do with the amended complaint, but Maryland has done everything it can do.” DISENFRANCHISED, DISCOURAGED Rajeev Goyle, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in Baltimore, which is supporting the Poole case, said the “harm is great, not just humiliation and embarrassment. … A whole class of the citizenry has been discouraged from voting, even though the technology is available.” The Florida case is set to go to trial in September, according to plaintiffs’ attorney J. Douglas Baldridge of Howrey Simon Arnold & White of Washington. Baldridge said the state could put an accessible voting machine in every election precinct in Duval County for a total of about $900,000. Right now, he said, for the 40,000 voters in the class in sprawling Duval County, there are just three machines accessible to the blind, and they are all in the same precinct. The lack of money is the problem, asserted Florida Assistant Attorney General Charles Finkel. The state Legislature last year changed the election statutes to require that any voting machines purchased must be accessible to the visually or physically impaired. But the state has not yet come up with the money to pay for such machines. That puts the accessibility problem in the hands of Florida’s counties, which have no funds either, Finkel said.

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