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State looking at ways to help disabled vote

But the cost of providing a secret ballot is daunting

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Voting in secret is a right every American expects but one that most disabled Utahns don't have.

The state's first step toward doing something about that has been taken with an assessment report from the lieutenant governor and the State Elections Office. The review was required by HB143, which passed during the 2001 session of the Legislature.

Whatever the solution, it will take "a great deal of time, patience and cooperation between election officials and the voters," the report states.

"Accommodating persons with disabilities affects every aspect of the elections process and will require several changes to the current procedures," Lt. Gov. Olene Walker said.

Perhaps the most daunting aspect of the effort is cost. New electronic voting systems that could be used by all voters and would allow most but not all of the disabled to vote in secret cost between $3,000 and $5,000 each. Walker and the elections office estimate that to keep lines short, each polling place in the 1,800 precincts statewide would need three to five machines.

Because counties pay for all costs associated with conducting an election, unless an appropriation were given by the Legislature, they likely could not afford to purchase new equipment.

No one is being denied the right to vote because of a disability, but most cannot vote independently. They can receive assistance from an election judge, from a friend, vote by absentee ballot or "curb-side" by asking a judge to bring the ballot to the voter's vehicle.

Several bills are currently being considered in Congress that would provide money to upgrade voting equipment. But Walker said the legislation is moving slowly and the bills also come with strings attached, and Utah may or may not qualify for the money anyway.

The state isn't financially able to buy all the equipment now, but the report suggests that funding for one or more of the machines at each county clerk's office should be appropriated. That would require 40 machines at a total cost of $140,000.

Lloyd Carr, whose company prints most of the election ballots used in the state, said that estimate is "very understated." Not only is the ability to vote needed, the ability to gather and report the information also has to be factored in. He said he applauds Walker's effort to address the problem but, whatever plans are ultimately made, the participation of all the disabled in all elections, from districts and municipalities to general elections, needs to be ensured.

The report also points out that the perfect voting system that will accommodate all disabilities does not exist. Many will assist the visually impaired, but voters who have limited mobility, hearing or mental impairments would still need help to vote.

Walker said some states have developed a Braille ballot and others have started call-in centers where volunteers read the ballot to the voter. Some states are expanding vote-by-mail, eliminating the need for any voter to go to a polling place.

Simply purchasing one machine per county isn't really a resolution, said Ron Gardner of the Disability Law Center in Salt Lake. "That is troubling to me," he said, adding that he doubts the state would ever reach a point of being "financially ready" to make the expenditures.

More than machines are standing in the way of the disabled. At least 17 polling sites in Utah do not meet even the lowest standards of accessibility, according to the report. Most of those are in rural areas where polling places are located in private homes. Walker is recommending that county clerks conduct a formal audit of polling places to review physical barriers to the disabled.

Sen. Bill Hickman, R-Beaver and co-chairman of the Government Operations Interim Committee, said lawmakers have asked for a bill to be drafted that calls for at least 40 machines and to include whatever steps are necessary to make sure the state is trying to align with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"We are probably required under ADA to do this anyway," Hickman said. "We are behind, and we need to get started to show a good-faith effort."

E-MAIL: jthalman@desnews.com