Thursday, June 17, 2004


The blind leading the blind

I had long been puzzled by the opposition of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) to the implementation of an auditable voting system. I understood that touch-screen voting offered the blind a heretofore unrealized independence in the voting booth. But it seemed evident that if your vote were to be lost or manipulated, it didn't really matter whether you cast your ballot independently or with the assistance of another person.

But that was not the position of the NFB. They insisted that the independence that paperless touch-screen voting offered overrode all other considerations. Their voice was heard repeatedly in the voting-machine debates, which you will notice if you read almost any newspaper article on the topic.

Theirs was a powerful voice. What politician, what organization wants to take a stand against blind people?

On Monday, June 7, Bev Harris of Black Box Voting posted an appeal to her readers. The League of Women Voters had opposed requiring auditable methods of voting, and among the reasons the League had listed for opposing them was "undermin[ing] access for people with disabilities."

At the end of her post, she noted,
The National Federation of the Blind has, however, been promoting unauditable paperless voting on DREs [direct record electronic voting system], without disclosing that other methods are available. This organization did not mention to the League of Women Voters or to local voting officials that it took a $1 million contribution from Diebold Inc., and that it has formally announced that it is in partnership with Diebold on ATM machines. This failure to disclose alternate methods, when combined with nondisclosure of fiduciary relationships with a vendor, should be considered by the League in making a decision to rescind its earlier opposition to paper ballots. [boldface mine]

For me, this was the grand Ah-hah! So I went to the NFB's website to check them out. Following the links, you come to some interesting information.

Begun in 1940, the NFB took a different tack from other organizations for the blind. Instead of offering services, it monitored the programs of those groups who did.

By the 1980s it was raising quite a ruckus, finding misfeasance and malfeasance in the programs and services of a number of organizations for the blind, some of them government-supported. It also found itself under investigation by the Justice department in what was apparently a conflict-of-interest allegation, from which it was absolved.

According to a speech given in 1981 by Kenneth Jernigan, their president at the time, the internicine warfare among the groups for the blind had reached the point of break-ins of the homes of the NFB staff. Furthermore,
Our headquarters building in Baltimore has been broken into, and a bottle of gasoline containing a wick was found by our boiler room door. During the past year both Harold Snider and Rami Rabby have had acid thrown at them on the streets. Recently Rami received in his mail box a cardboard with his initials formed in Braille dots made of eight live rifle bullets.

And here I was, thinking that blindness was a handicap! It's nothing compared with rattling the cages of the Powers That Be.

By 1990, they were still hard at it, battling the National Accreditation Council for Agencies Serving the Blind and Visually Handicapped (NAC). Barbara Pierce wrote an article for The Braille Monitor that began—
Maybe there is something about work with the blind that attracts disreputable people or encourages the proliferation of despicable human impulses. Maybe, like televangelists, agency personnel in this field are held in such reverence by the public at large that some of them begin to think they are above the law. Or perhaps it is merely the presence in the field of an accrediting body (NAC) that provides protection for virtually any shoddy practice (as long as only the blind are injured), perpetuating a network that inflates or fumigates professional reputations as required.
Go, Barbara! Couldn't have said it better myself.

But something has gone terribly wrong with this organization.

Bev Harris began to investigate, and she and Andy Stephenson, her research partner, found this:
1. The NFB sued Diebold and NCR over ATMs that weren't accessible. They settled with NCR and Diebold, and the two firms retrofitted -- but only Diebold paid money to the National Federation of the Blind. Diebold paid $1 million.

2. Then the NFB went on a lawsuit spree, suing a whole string of banks to get them to buy retrofitted ATMs.

3. The National Federation for the Blind announced a formal partnership with Diebold on the ATMs. This was announced by NFB president Betsy Zabrowski on Dec. 7, 2000 in an interview with the Daily Record, of Baltimore, MD. The NFB embarked on a partnership -- or a shakedown cruise, depending on how you look at it. NFB sues -- then says "We make this go away if you buy Diebold."

4. ... The banks that got sued then bought Diebold.

5. ... At least six banks are now considering dropping Diebold ATMs. When Diebold did the redesign, quality problems arose and the banks are unhappy. These banks include the biggies, reportedly Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank.
The NFB also brought lawsuits against all 31 counties of Ohio, "threatening to sue for civil rights violations unless they bought touch screens."

Bev Harris also got the NY Times interested, which editorialized
The National Federation of the Blind ... has been championing controversial voting machines that do not provide a paper trail. It has attested not only to the machines' accessibility, but also to their security and accuracy - neither of which is within the federation's areas of expertise. What's even more troubling is that the group has accepted a $1 million gift for a new training institute from Diebold, the machines' manufacturer, which put the testimonial on its Web site. The federation stands by its "complete confidence" in Diebold even though several recent studies have raised serious doubts about the company, and California has banned more than 14,000 Diebold machines from being used this November because of doubts about their reliability.

Disability-rights groups have had an outsized influence on the debate despite their general lack of background on security issues.

So what happened?

If you read over the biographies of the Board of Directors of the NFB, you will notice that many of them are "entrepreneurial" either currently or by background. They eschew condescension and have made their way often "by the boostraps."

Marc Maurer, the current president, "ran three different businesses before finishing high school: a paper route, a lawn care business, and an enterprise producing and marketing maternity garter belts designed by his mother."

Laudable as this undoubtedly is, it is my observation (with which many will disagree) that such folks, in getting caught up in the business of doing business, can easily lose their perspective on any matter other than business. If the bucks are coming in, I must be doing something right, right?

One member, Carlos Serván, is originally from Peru and lost his sight from a grenade while at the National Detective Academy of Peru, which, "in addition to investigation, prepares trainees to combat guerrillas and conduct counter-terrorism activities."

Their previous president, in the speech noted above, said during the Reagan administration,
We do not want (and I doubt that the Administration wants) to eliminate needed services to the blind or any meaningful program; but more money for an agency does not necessarily mean more help or a better life for those who are supposed to be served by that agency.... With a revamped and diminished bureaucracy (one with enough personnel to carry out legitimate duties but not enough to conduct wars against the blind) we might actually get more and better programs with less expenditure.

I came away with the impression of an organization with a right-wing libertarian tilt that, despite having done much good, has unfortunately embraced the spirit of the times.

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