Voting accessibility gains momentum

A sweeping election reform bill that overwhelmingly passed the Senate April 11 includes a little-noticed provision requiring that states using federal funds to upgrade their voting technology include technology that enables blind and visually impaired voters to cast ballots without assistance.

The bill, which passed 99-1, follows on the heels of the passage last month of Alaska's H.B. 320, which Tony Knowles, the state's governor, signed March 7. The legislation permits the state Division of Elections to provide technology for blind and visually impaired voters so they can cast "private, independent and verifiable ballots." Alaska is the first state to pass such a law.

Few funds were available to address the problems of visually impaired voters until voting controversies erupted in the 2000 election, according to R. Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, a nonprofit group based in Houston.

The center has been studying voting accessibility for people with disabilities for three years, Lewis said. "We're still in the first series of [investigations into] how we can really make it possible for blind people to vote unassisted," he said. "We're making those incremental steps. It's coming along slowly but surely."

The House of Representatives passed a bill in December 2001 to establish a grant program for states that want to update antiquated punch-card voting machines. That bill, however, set only voluntary standards for the use of electronic voting technology that can be operated by the 8 million Americans who are blind and/or cannot read a paper ballot, according to James McCarthy, assistant director of governmental affairs for the National Federation of the Blind.

However, the Senate bill — the Equal Protection of Voting Rights Act of 2001, sponsored by Senate Rules and Administration Committee chairman Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) — would require states that use federal funds to update their voting technology to give strong consideration to so-called direct recording electronic devices, or DREs, which are computerized machines that use touch-sensitive screens.

The Senate bill was close to passing in February, but because of disagreements over provisions relating to voter fraud, it was pulled off the floor calendar, McCarthy said.

Although DREs' touch-sensitive screens are of little use by themselves to the visually impaired, several voting technology companies now produce plug-in components for the machines that "talk" through voice recordings and have keys with raised arrows and icons that blind voters can read with their fingertips.

The eSlate voting machine made by Hart InterCivic of Austin, Texas, includes an audible confirmation feature that makes a faint click as the voter moves from race to race, said Michelle Shafer, the company's director of marketing.

"Blind voters like that because they can hear the wheel turning" and feel certain that they are in the correct section of the ballot, she said.

If both houses of Congress pass legislation to require technology that aids visually impaired voters, "I think a lot of states will also be interested in passing similar legislation," McCarthy said. "The states' big concern is financial [because electronic voting machines are expensive], but the nonvisual aspects of that technology are actually quite inexpensive, given the overall cost of the machines themselves."

Before Alaska passed its new law, the estimated 12,500 blind voters in the state had to rely on others to cast their ballots for them in the booth.

"We believe we have the highest per capita number of folks who are blind," said Janet Kowalski, director of Alaska's Division of Elections. That doesn't include the members of the voting population who are visually impaired, meaning that they have partial sight or can make out only large print, she said.

"Our goal here has always been to treat voters the same," she said. "What the legislation says is that any time the Division of Elections buys electronic balloting equipment, it must be disabled-accessible." The law was passed quickly and had bipartisan support, she added.

Kowalski said the state plans to test some machines during the general election in November, but deploying the technology statewide may take time. Alaska has considered Internet voting, but security is an issue, she said.

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.

Alaska's "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 across Alaska, 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 Alaska bill, advocates had 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.

The White House will probably go along with what Congress determines in conference committee — provided the House and Senate can reconcile the differences in the two bills — but how much money will be authorized is unclear, Lewis said. He fears some people may decide, with current budget shortfalls, to "mandate a whole lot of changes and not provide the funds to do it."

Election reform advocates are trying to convince federal lawmakers that appropriate funding for their issue is just as important as, for example, foreign aid, Lewis said.

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Plug-ins for visually impaired voters

Several manufacturers of voting technology known as direct recording electronic devices (DREs) now provide special features or plug-in accessories that enable blind voters to cast a ballot in private, without the support of a precinct worker. Among the products are:

* Hart InterCivic's eSlate. Pictured below, eSlate incorporates an audio ballot reader and headphones, large red and green buttons a voter can push to indicate "yes" or "no" and audible signals that confirm that the voter's selections have been made.

* Sequoia Voting Systems' AVC Edge. This uses an audio voting accessory plug-in that includes a ballot reader, headphones and a keypad with raised pictograms and Braille numbers.

* Diebold Inc.'s AccuVote-TS. This uses a voice guidance system that includes a ballot reader, headphones and a keypad based on the five-dot numbering system used in automated teller machines for the visually impaired.

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