Advocates for the disabled had hoped to unveil high-tech machines in the general election to make voting easier for District residents who are blind or have limited hand dexterity. But that will have to wait.
The 150 machines, costing $1.2 million, are in place. Volunteers needed to operate the equipment are not.
Several advocacy groups were supposed to recruit the volunteers under a court settlement this year of a lawsuit brought by the groups against the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics. The suit alleged that the city's current balloting system requires many disabled people to have assistance in the voting booth, denying them the right to cast ballots in private.
The city bought the machines, about 30 of which were used in demonstrations during the September primary elections. The machines were demonstrated more widely -- at all 140 polling places -- for the general election Nov. 5, but the advocacy groups could not find enough volunteers to run them, officials said.
So the machines will sit dormant this year. They are scheduled to be used for actual voting in the presidential primary of May 2004.
"We weren't able to reach as many people as we'd hoped," said Linda Royster, executive director of the Disability Rights Council of Greater Washington. "We're unable to pull together enough volunteers to make the demos worthwhile. The board will not assist or provide us with the people. To be fair, it's not malicious on their part. They just don't have the people."
Under the court settlement, which affects more than 16,000 District voters, the city was not required to recruit volunteers or train them for a demonstration next month, city officials said.
However, the city will be responsible for recruiting and training in 2004. Board of Elections spokesman Bill O'Field said city officials will try to demonstrate and publicize the new machines before the 2004 primaries.
Using them, voters who can see but cannot read or write English will receive audio instructions and make selections by touching a screen on a desktop-size computer that can handle as many as five languages. Sight-impaired voters or those with limited hand movement will receive audio instructions and make their selections by pushing a button on a separate electronic box attached to the computer.
Royster said her organization and the American Association of People With Disabilities, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, could not offer a stipend to volunteers this November. In contrast, the city will pay poll workers a $100 daily stipend.
"Oh, how I wish," Royster said. "We are a very small nonprofit. We don't have that kind of money."
Board of Elections officials said they will pay workers a stipend to operate the new machines in 2004 but cannot afford a demonstration next month.
"We have always been on the same page," said Kenneth McGhie, general counsel to the elections board. "We wanted further [voter] participation. To that extent, [the new machines] are what we both wanted. The only thing we ever disagreed on was the timing. The timing was a problem because we do not have enough money."
Royster said that both nonprofit organizations asked members to volunteer but that many people said they were too busy. She said she does not foresee a problem getting the machines running by the 2004 primary.
The District will be the nation's only jurisdiction to use both the optical-scan voting and computerized systems. The city replaced its punch-card system with optical-scan balloting last year.