HELENA — Elections clerks across Montana could find themselves increasingly challenged to serve voters with severe physical disabilities because of a dwindling supply of polling equipment designed especially for people who cannot use traditional voting machines.
Existing inventories of voting machines for disabled voters are antiquated, some nearly two decades old. Many units are in disrepair and elections officials have been unable to replace the aging machines with newer, modern equipment because of state law.
In 2008, a disabled voter sued Missoula County for not being in full compliance with federal law when it did not have a backup unit for a malfunctioning machine specially designed for people who do not have full function of their limbs.
"We really need to invest in new technology," said Rebecca Connors, the elections administrator for Missoula County. "The equipment we have are at the end of their useful lives."
While there were no immediate concerns for the May 25 special congressional election, elections officials were hoping to get some relief from the governor and Legislature last month.
Gov. Steve Bullock tried intervening when he inserted a new provision into an unrelated elections bill to give Secretary of State Corey Stapleton the authority to certify voting machines that don't comply with current state law. But his proposal to allow counties to update their equipment died when lawmakers adjourned April 28 without taking up the matter.
State law requires ballots be uniform statewide, but newer voting machines can't use the bigger ballots currently being used by the state.
Missoula County has an inventory of 40 of the AutoMARK machines used across the state to comply with the Help America Vote Act, a federal law that went into effect in 2002, that requires elections officials to place at least one such voting machine at each polling place during federal elections. The law was partly put in place to give disabled voters the chance to cast their ballot with minimum assistance so they can vote in private.
About 20 disabled voters used the machine last fall across the county's 32 polling places, Connors said. She said her county is now in a "compromised position" because of her dwindling supply of machines. She recalled one man spending about 45 minutes filling out a ballot on one of the machines, only to have the device break down before he could submit his vote.
Chris Clasby became paralyzed from the neck down because of a car accident in 1990 when he was 18. The Missoula man, now 44, prefers to vote in person, he said.
"I like going through the process of filling out my own ballot," Clasby said. "It makes me feel like I'm taking part in the same process like everyone else."
The AutoMARK machines allow quadriplegics to use a straw-like device to move across a computer monitor by sipping and puffing.
In Yellowstone County, which has about 97,000 registered voters, elections officials have had to loan out machines to other counties because of malfunctions.
The county had 51 AutoMark machines, but is down to 21 — which is enough to cover the county's 14 polling sites, said Bret Rutherford, the county's elections administrator.
"We have a few extra ones right now, but I'm hesitant to give one away," he said. "I'd like to help, and I don't want to be selfish, but we have to cover our bases, too."