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Stickers reading "I Voted" sit on a table at Vanguard Church in Colorado Springs Nov. 3, 2020. The church served as a location where voters could register, drop off completed ballots or fill out a ballot in person. (Forrest Czarnecki/The Gazette)

Democrats on a Senate panel on Tuesday advanced a bill that would allow voters with disabilities to return voted ballots online, a provision that pitted disability advocates against election security experts.

Senate Bill 21-188 from Sen. Jessie Danielson seeks to build on legislation the Wheat Ridge Democrat championed in 2019 that allows voters with disabilities to access a ballot online. Under Danielson's Senate Bill 19-202, a ballot can then be marked, printed and returned, which allows voters with disabilities to cast a ballot privately and independently.

After being signed into law in May 2019, Danielson said Secretary of State Jena Griswold quickly implemented the legislation and it has largely been successful save for one hiccup: few voters with disabilities have a printer.

Scott LaBarre, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado, said while testifying to the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee in support of the bill that less than 7% of Denver voters who attempted to the utilize provision in Danielson’s previous bill were successful in doing so in last fall’s election.

“This past election, 202 people tried to access the online accessible ballot marking tool, but only 14 actually returned a ballot,” he said. “Why? We have been told because they didn't have printers or easy access to a printer.

“The other 188 either didn't vote or had to find a less private, less independent way to vote.”

Danielson’s latest bill attempts to address that problem by moving the ballot return process online in a similar fashion to ballots returned by Colorado’s military and overseas voters and in cases of emergency.

“It's been proven to be secure, it is convenient and allows more people to vote and for people with disabilities, it will allow them to break down that final barrier to voting a private ballot, which I know that able-bodied people like myself may take for granted from time-to-time,” she said.

The measure won the support of organizations representing the disabled including The Arc of Colorado and the state’s chapter of the National Federation of the Blind, which had several members other than LaBarre testify in support of the bill.

“This will move us closer to being first-class citizens in terms of being able to cast a private, secure ballot without having to consult someone else,” NFB’s Dan Burke said.

But the bill received pushback from election security experts such as C. Jay Coles, the senior policy associate with Verified Voting, who told lawmakers “multiple cybersecurity experts have concluded that internet voting currently is unsafe.”

Coles pointed to, among other things, a 2018 National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine report that concluded: “We do not, at present, have the technology to offer a secure method to support internet voting.”

“It is certainly possible that individuals will be able to vote via the internet in the future, but technical concerns preclude the possibility of doing so securely at present,” the Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy report said.

Amanda Gonzalez of Colorado Common Cause also testified against the bill. She highlighted a report compiled last summer by four prominent federal agencies – the Department of Homeland Security, the Elections Assistance Commission, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, and the Cybersecurity Infrastructure Security Agency – that drew the same conclusions.

“Securing the return of voted ballots via the internet while ensuring ballot integrity and maintaining voter privacy is difficult, if not impossible, at this time,” that report said.

Gonzalez told the panel that “voters with disabilities should not be subject to a separate and less secure and less private system.”

Those warnings were not enough to dissuade the committee’s three Democrats, who voted to advance the bill on to consideration before the full Senate. The panel’s two GOP members voted against it.

For her part, Danielson pledged to continue to work with those who were opposed to the bill or asked for it to be amended but urged them to “put yourself in one's place where you would have to consider sharing your private information about how you voted in order to cast your ballot.”

“That's why we need this measure,” she said.

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