Saturday, June 17, 2006

Let's Push It Until We Have A Real Hearing

Touch-screen decision pushed to next week
by Alex Hummel of The Northwestern
Touch-screen voting machines or not, the Winnebago County Board’s indecision is certainly touching a nerve.

On Wednesday, coming off a mid-May county board defeat of a resolution to buy 49 high-tech digital touch-screen voting machines, the Winnebago County Board voted 28-6 to reconsider measure on June 20. They stopped short of actually casting a second vote on a controversial topic.

At its regular meeting on June 20, the 38-member board will reconsider the defeated resolution to spend a federally-reimbursable $288,000 and buy 50 Diebold Elections Systems touch-screen voting machines to comply with the Help America Vote Act.

HAVA contains a provision calling for touch-screen technology, or something like it, to improve access to the U.S. election system for physically disabled, visually-impaired and blind Americans. But what technology is the right technology to incorporate into local polling places is stirring debate in Winnebago County and, apparently, on a scale like none other in Wisconsin, State Elections Board Executive Director Kevin Kennedy said Wednesday.

Kennedy was among the speakers in a supercharged public forum on the issue at the Winnebago County Courthouse. Elected officials, disabled advocates and skeptical citizens aired vastly different views and reviews of Diebold’s technology.

Municipal clerks in Winnebago County favor its machines because they would be the least-costly, most-compatible add-on to the county’s existing electronic-ballot scanning machines. Critics question the equipment’s integrity, its ability to produce paper verification of digital ballots and mounting reports of lawsuits flaring up around the United States as paper jams and security issues dog the machines.

A small anti-Diebold protest greeted supervisors entering the courthouse on Wednesday. The pressure was on Sandy Smick in a different way.

The Oshkosh woman, 61, has a developmental disability. Bad knees and, sometimes, the lack of a ride to the polling place have prevented her from voting, she said. But Wednesday evening, she found herself giving the Diebold touch-screen voting machine causing such a ruckus a try in front of 38 county supervisors. She dished out fairly high marks.

“Pretty cool,” Smick said smiling, having tapped her decision on a digital Diebold ballot with the aid of a company rep.

Shirley Schmidt, 66, of Oshkosh, was, likewise, empowered.

Schmidt, who has been blind since birth, said she had to be “patient” with the Diebold machine’s audio delivery of ballot information via headphones. But she also said she liked the taste of independence. She cast her own ballot – however fake it was – for a first time, no human assistant required.

“I just hope people will use it,” Schmidt said. “Sometimes, they put stuff out for the disabled and the disabled won’t use it.”

Michael Huckaby wasn’t as sold.

The blind Madisonian and representative of the National Federation of the Blind of Wisconsin made a special trip to Oshkosh Wednesday to weigh in on the local HAVA touch-screen debate. He told the county board the audio-features of the Diebold product can produce a “Chipmunky” sound if a voter accidentally speeds up a handheld control of the human voice delivering ballot information to the voter.

“I don’t like the way it Chipmunks on you,” Huckaby said.

Diebold representative Steve Corey stressed that fears of computer hacking and paper-record malfunctions are, largely, just that.

Diebold’s machine does produce a paper roll authenticating a voter’s intent after a digital ballot is tapped out. Only after the paper record is printed and stored in a sealed canister is a voter allowed to “cast” his or her ballot digitally, Corey said.

Kennedy, too, assured the county board and audience that the State Elections Board did all it could to screen the HAVA equipment for bugs.

County board Supervisor Jef Hall, of Oshkosh, questioned why the county board was given no menu of HAVA-compliance options cleared by state elections officials. Hall also challenged both Corey and Kennedy on the security and effectiveness of the Diebold systems.

“Can I stand here and tell you this device will never jam – no,” Corey told Hall at one point.

A UWO computer science professor and the Oshkosh Area League of Women Voters were among other skeptical locals to testify against Diebold’s system."

The county and municipal clerks acted in good faith to recommend this purchase; however, LWV believes that purchase of Diebold touch screen voting machines would be a mistake,” League representative Kathy Propp said in a statement given to the county board.

Alex Hummel: (920) 426-6669 or



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