Disability rights advocates are challenging one of the main reasons county officials use when arguing the need to eliminate 13 Missoula County polling places.
Missoula County Clerk and Recorder Vickie Zeier has said the county needs to provide better voting access to individuals with disabilities after a disabled voter sued the county. The lawsuit stemmed from an incident during the 2008 general election when an AutoMARK machine—used by people with disabilities—wouldn't read a voter’s ballot.
Because the machine didn't work and there was no backup available, the county was not complying with the law. Zeier has said that because of the lawsuit, the county should invest in additional AutoMARK machines—one for each polling place—to ensure equal access. The county would save $75,000 by not having to buy machines for the polling places on the chopping block.
But Beth Brenneman, the attorney for Disability Rights Montana who represented the plaintiff in the lawsuit against the county, says the lawsuit never asked the county to purchase additional machines. The parties have not arrived at settlement. But, essentially, the suit seeks to ensure each polling place has one functioning AutoMARK, not two.
"We're not going to be seeking a second AutoMARK, we're just not," she says.
Brenneman says her client is upset by the fact that his lawsuit is being used to justify shuttering polling places.
"I think it's very unfair that this is being laid at his feet," she says.
In response to Brenneman's concerns, Zeier backpedaled. Although she's discussed the accessibility issue — it's listed as a primary reason to consolidate on the county website — she says the county's lack of election judges is the main culprit. Regarding AutoMARKs, Zeier says best practices dictate having backup machines in rural areas and closing 13 polling places would allow that to happen.
"This case, obviously, brought to my attention that I need to have backup. But it's not the reason to consolidate," she says.
In the meantime, Zeier says she's tweaking the existing consolidation proposal and will soon roll out a new plan. "We hope to have it on the website early next week," she says.