County clerks mulling option to allow Utahns with disabilities vote electronically

Published: Friday, April 4 2014 6:10 p.m. MDT

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SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake County will be among the first in Utah to take part in a pilot project that would allow people with disabilities to vote electronically.

Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swensen confirmed Friday that the county plans to develop a means for people with disabilities — as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act — to vote electronically.

SB245, recently passed by the Utah Legislature, added people with disabilities to existing law that permits counties to allow service members to register and vote electronically. Service members have been able to vote electronically since 1998, said Mark Thomas, state elections director.

While the bill is titled "Internet Voting Pilot Project," service members have voted in the past via email, Swensen said. Some programs enable members of the military to access a ballot that they print. They fill in circles to select candidates and either return the ballot by mailing it or scanning it into an electronic file that is emailed to the clerk of their home county.

Swensen said voting over the Internet is not yet considered a secure means to conduct balloting.

"We always need a paper trail. There have been at least two federal projects looking at the potential for Internet voting, but they have not yet been able to secure it," she said.

Even before the bill became law, private vendors were approaching state election officials with technology they say could successfully facilitate online voting, Thomas said.

County clerks are carefully studying the best means to implement electronic voting for people with disabilities, understanding there could be tremendous benefit to many people but that the state and counties must establish a secure process that voters and the public can trust, he said.

Sheri Newton, voting specialist for the Disability Law Center of Utah, says the statute "has the real potential to increase voter participation."

One in 7 voters has accessibility needs, Newton said, and that number is growing.

However, "people with disabilities vote at a much lower rate than the general population," she said.

Access to the polls is a problem for people who are ill or do not have adequate transportation.

"Once they do arrive, they may find their polling place is difficult to get into, inconvenient or maybe even dangerous," Newton told lawmakers at committee hearing for SB245 last month. The bill was sponsored by Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, and Rep. Jon Cox, R-Ephraim, at the request of the lieutenant governor's office.

One national study among people with disabilities found that 48 percent of those polled found it difficult to operate voting machines at polling places.

"It may take them about 30 minutes to get through the ballot," Newton said. "That’s really uncomfortable if you have a line of people waiting to vote and you're holding it up. Some people have even experienced snide comments from other voters, quite frankly. We’d like to avoid those kinds of things."

Many people with disabilities have assistive technology that helps them use their home computers, which would further facilitate their voting, she said.

Swensen said it is doubtful that electronic voting for people with disabilities would be available by the June 24 primary election. It is unclear whether it would be ready by the general election on Nov. 4, either.

Voting by mail remains an option, and county clerks across the state will continue to make efforts under federal law to make voting places as accessible as possible and to ensure people with disabilities who need help casting ballots receive assistance, Thomas said.

On Thursday, Thomas met with the clerks of Salt Lake, Utah, Weber and Davis counties to discuss the possibilities.

He said the state plans to take a careful, methodical study of available technologies and safeguards.

"What I've told people who are quite eager to do something with this, this can be taken away just as fast as it was given to us. This is a pilot. If we screw it up, it may be 10 years before the Legislature may be willing to give us a little bit of flexibility," Thomas said.

"Coming with this legislation is also a trust that we will do a good job, a prudent job, something the voters will trust and believe in," he said.

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