County discriminated

Getting around town takes a little extra time for Mark Boatman. The dark-haired 35-year-old with muscular dystrophy is confined to a wheelchair and uses a respirator to breathe. The challenges don't stop him, however. Since he was diagnosed with the illness as a child, the University of Montana journalism student has become an expert at problem-solving. He likes his independence. That's why, when Missoula County failed in 2008 to ensure a voting machine was available for him to cast a ballot without assistance, he fought back.

"I just thought, 'This isn't right,'" Boatman says. "I really thought, 'If I don't speak out, if I don't do something, who else is going to?'"

Montana law mandates that when accessible voting machines are available, they must be provided in working order. The county has such machines, called AutoMARKs. Boatman tried to use an AutoMARK in his East Missoula polling place during three consecutive federal elections. Each time, he says, the machine failed to work. He finally got fed up in 2008. Boatman and Disability Rights Montana filed a discrimination complaint against Missoula County.

Last month, the Montana Human Rights Bureau found Missoula County discriminated against Boatman when it made a "conscious decision" to not follow proper protocol for testing and setting up AutoMARK machines. The county's actions turned a blind eye to the hardships people such as Boatman face in the absence of AutoMARKs, it found.

Missoula County Attorney Dorothy Brownlow argued against Boatman's complaint, on behalf of the Election's Office. Brownlow maintains the county didn't discriminate against Boatman. Brownlow does, however, acknowledge that election officials and staffers have had an uphill battle working through AutoMARK's technological kinks. The machines are unreliable, she says.

Even before the bureau found the county discriminated against Boatman, Brownlow says, election officials were striving to ensure accessibility by increasing AutoMARK training for polling-place volunteers and testing machines before elections. "We always have wanted them to work," she adds.

Boatman says the last time he voted, the machine operated perfectly. "It felt great...You felt pretty empowered when you don't need any help."

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