Blind man files rights complaint

In next Tuesday’s election, unless the city of Homer can borrow and program a special touchscreen electronic voting machine from the state, Homer voter Rick Malley will miss out on an experience enjoyed by most other voters: the right to vote in person and privately at a city polling place on a machine accessible to him. After being unable to vote in the Oct. 5 election, Malley has filed a complaint against the Kenai Peninsula Borough with the Alaska Human Rights Commission.

Malley, who works at the Independent Living Center as a counselor for others learning to live with their disabilities, is visually impaired. People might recognize him as the guy who uses a guide dog as he walks around town. Earlier this month in city and borough elections operated by the borough, Malley got a surprise when he tried to vote. The city didn’t have an electronic touchscreen voting machine that has large print and also audibly reads the ballot. In the 2014 general election, the state provided such machines at local precincts.

“I went to the polling place, thought there would be an accessible machine,” he said. “There wasn’t. I couldn’t vote.”

Election officials offered Malley the option of assisting him with the ballot in the voting booth, said Johni Blankenship, borough clerk. Officials take an oath that they will not disclose how a voter getting assistance votes. 

Malley didn’t want that option, Blankenship said.

“That’s not voting in private or confidentially,” Malley said.

The borough also offers other options for voting. A voter can ask for a ballot to be mailed and vote at home. Malley has assistive technology that can help him read a ballot. A voter also can get a special needs ballot, where someone authorized by a voter picks up a ballot, takes it to that voter, assists the voter if needed, and returns the marked ballot to the election place. The marked ballots are the same paper ballots as used by other voters and are indistinguishable from other ballots.

Blankenship had proposed last year to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly that the borough use mail-in ballots, but the assembly shot down that idea.

Malley doesn’t want to vote an absentee ballot for Tuesday’s runoff election between Beauregard Burgess and Heath Smith for a Homer City Council seat. 

“The only choice I have to vote in Homer is to vote an absentee ballot. Every other voter can go to the polling place,” Malley said. “Why can’t I go to the polling place? It’s a lot simpler, and it’s my right just like everyone else.”

The city could borrow one of the touchscreen machines. Under the federal Help America Vote Act, the state received funding for touchscreen electronic machines. HAVA didn’t provide funding for machines to municipalities, Blankenship said. In state or federal elections, the state provides those machines to municipalities, but not for borough or city elections in the same year. She said the turnaround time to reprogram machines is too short. HAVA doesn’t require accessible voting machines for municipal elections, Blankenship said.

Malley said an older law, the 25-year-old Americans With Disabilities Act, or ADA, does require municipalities to have accessible machines. That’s true, said Jodie Bahnke, director of the Alaska Division of Elections. She cited Title II of ADA, which requires both state and local governments to ensure people with disabilities have a full and equal right to vote. That applies to all aspects of voting.

“The ADA has been around 25 years, and the borough and city haven’t been paying attention to it,” Malley said “It’s not my fault.”

After Malley raised his complaint to her, Blankenship said she has been in discussion with other Alaska clerks about the problem. She said Malley was the first voter to complain about not having an accessible and private machine, and that other municipalities haven’t received complaints, either.

Malley also is the first voter to raise the issue with the city, said Homer City Manager Katie Koester. She and City Clerk Jo Johnson met with Malley, and as a result Koester will seek approval from the Homer City Council for $5,000 to purchase a refurbished, electronic touchscreen voting machine. The procurement process won’t happen fast enough for Tuesday’s election or for a Dec. 1 election on Proposition 1, a vote to suspend for three years a .75 percent allocation of sales taxes to the Homer Accelerated Trails and Roads fund and allocate that money to the general fund.

“It was a really constructive meeting,” Koester said. “That issue hadn’t been brought to our attention before, but probably someone hadn’t taken the time to make it an issue.”

Malley has offered to speak to the city council about voting accessibility issues.

“He’s also offered to work with the city on some long-term accessibility goals,” Koester said.

For example, the city should have someone on staff trained in the ADA who can be a point person for people with disabilities. Each department also should have someone who monitors accessibility issues, Koester said. As part of its “strategic doing” planning process, the city also will have a work session in January on accessibility issues.

“I think it’s going to have some good outcomes, and I’m glad that Rick is willing to share his expertise and some time on that,” Koester said.

Blankenship said the optical ballot voting machines are more than 15 years old and outdated. The issue of accessibility could be taken up when the state looks at how it will replace voting machines, but she said the state should take the lead on that, not municipalities. 

“To me, it doesn’t make sense to move until the state moves,” she said.

Bahnke said the city of Homer could borrow a touchscreen electronic machine, but the city would have to be responsible for programming. Koester said she hadn’t been aware of that option and she and Johnson will explore it for upcoming elections.

“I just want to vote. I want to vote in this election,” Malley said. “I guess I’ll do the absentee ballot, but I’d rather go to the polls.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com. 

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