COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- It used to get crowded whenever Eileen Rivera Ley voted.
Blind, Rivera Ley had to rely on someone else to read the ballot aloud, then vote for her. That meant as many as four people -- Rivera Ley, the person who pulled the levers and election judges from both major parties as witnesses -- huddled in the voting booth.
''It's like a party in there,'' Rivera Ley said. ''You lose any kind of privacy when you have to speak how you want to vote.''
This November, Rivera Ley, 41, will vote by herself for the first time. Blind voters in Maryland and several other states will use electronic voting machines equipped with technology that allows the disabled to vote independently.
While many voter rights' advocates are fighting to decertify electronic voting machines, arguing that they're not reliable, one bloc remains steadfast behind the new equipment -- disabled voters who say the machines give them long-denied privacy.
''The need for greater access by millions of people should not be overshadowed by this concern about security to the point that some people throw up their hands and say, 'Let's go back the punch card,''' said James Gashel, an executive at the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind, or NFB.
The Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress in 2002, requires polling places to provide the same privacy and independence to all voters by 2006.
Many states and jurisdictions have fulfilled the requirement with e-voting machines. Maryland invested $55 million to install ATM-like touch-screen machines in every polling place. The devices are meant to make voting easier, more efficient and less prone to error.
Most models come with the ability to produce an audio recording of a ballot that blind voters can listen to with headphones. The recording in-structs them on how to use a keypad to cast their votes.
The height of the machines can also be adjusted for people in wheelchairs.
For those who are not blind but have difficulty seeing, the text size can be increased and the contrast adjusted to make the ballot screen easier to read.
But electronic voting faces several legal challenges over concerns the machines can be tampered with or produce inaccurate votes because of computer glitches or human error.
In March primaries in California and Maryland, software bugs and poll workers unfamiliar with the touch-screen technology accidentally eliminated some races and allowed voters to cast ballots for contests in wrong precincts.
Critics of the touch-screen machines, on which nearly one in three U.S. voters will cast ballots on Election Day, want the machines to produce a paper record of each vote cast. Nevada already has that requirement, and California will by 2006.
A federal appeals court recently reinstated a lawsuit demanding paper receipts for Florida voters.
In Maryland, though, the group TrueVoteMd recently lost a legal battle to decertify the state's machines before the election. NFB joined the state in defending the machines against the lawsuit, which won't be heard until after the election.
Other advocates for the disabled point out that older systems, such as punch card machines in Florida, lost or misread votes during the 2000 election. Accessibility issues far outweigh fears the ma-chines won't count votes properly, argues Jim Dickson, vice president of the American Association of People with Disabilities.
In Florida, a federal judge ordered Duval County to install electronic voting ma-chines in some precincts by November to accommodate blind and disabled voters. The county is planning an appeal, saying it doesn't have time to comply.
Kent Bell, 39, the plaintiff in the case, said he previously needed help voting on optical scanning equipment at his Jacksonville, Fla., precinct.
Born without hands, he couldn't write to fill in boxes that are read by a machine. A touch-screen machine will let him vote using a stick he holds in his mouth.
Arizona officials, meanwhile, have devised a system that seems to satisfy both the disabled and touch-screen critics.
The equipment, from Chicago-based AutoMark Technical Systems and Omaha, Neb.-based Election Systems and Software Inc., will debut on Nov. 2 in six Arizona precincts for use only by disabled voters.
After voters make selections, the machines mark a standard ballot and spit it out. The ballot is then fed into optical scanning equipment already used throughout the state.
The biggest difference between AutoMark and e-voting machines elsewhere, its makers say, is that AutoMark doesn't count votes or use a connected computerized network that can be compromised.
Because AutoMark simply marks existing ballots and lets voters review their choices, hackers or software flaws wouldn't be able to alter or delete votes as easily, said Avi Rubin, a Johns Hopkins computer scientist and one of the country's leading e-voting critics.
The machines, which cost at least $4,000 each, are not perfect, though: Dickson points out that voters still have to feed ballots into the optical scanner, so those with motor skill problems would likely need assistance.
Nonetheless, disabled voters consider touch screens a rare piece of technology developed with them in mind.
Diebold Inc., which manufactures the machines used in Maryland and several other states, consulted with the NFB and other disabled advocacy groups while developing their equipment, company spokesperson David Bear said.
Many who have used the machines in primaries or tested them in demonstrations say the experience is liberating.
''We're enthused about the new freedom,'' said Sharon Maneki, a blind Columbia resident who used the machines in a March primary. ''It's a great experience to be able to vote independently and in secret for the first time.''
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