Alaska OKs electronic ballot for blind

Alaska H.B. 320

A new Alaska law allowing for electronic ballots eventually may help blind

and visually impaired voters in the state to cast their ballots without

assistance, enabling them to keep their votes secret.

Last month, Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles signed H.B. 320, permitting the

state Division of Elections to provide technology for blind and visually

impaired voters so they can cast "private, independent and verifiable ballots,"

according to the legislation.

The estimated 12,500 blind voters in the state have had to rely on other

people to cast their ballots for them in the booth.

"We believe we have the highest per capita number of folks who are blind

in Alaska," said Janet Kowalski, director of Division of Elections. That

doesn't include the members of the voting population who are visually impaired.

"Our goal here has always been to treat voters the same," she said. "What

the legislation says is that anytime the Division of Election buys electronic

balloting equipment, it must be disabled-accessible." The law was passed

quickly and had bipartisan support, she added.

Kowalski said the state planned to test some machines during the general

election in November, but deploying the technology statewide may take some

time. Some new technologies include devices that enable voters to navigate

their choices with an electronic button while listening on a headset. Kowalski

said the state had considered Internet voting, but security was an issue.

The state legislature is considering a capital improvement fund to help

pay for electronic voting machines, but it is too early in the process,

she said.

"The Alaska Division of Elections has not been open to some of these

technologies in the past because they were extremely time-intensive and

expensive," she said. "With the revolution in technology, it's just far

easier for election administrators to put these machines in place."

There are 452 polling places statewide, and about 97 percent of them

use optical scanning machines. At the other 3 percent, ballots are hand-counted.

Although the balloting controversies in Florida during the 2000 presidential

election helped spur passage of the bill, advocates have been pushing for

secret balloting for blind and visually impaired voters for a decade. The

Alaska bill is also known as the Frank Haas Act, commemorating a longtime

advocate for visually impaired people in Alaska.

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