Blind voters don’t see eye to eye with election officials

by Amy Kingsley

When Dottie Neely, a visually-impaired community activist, went to the polls in 2004, she encountered Direct Record Electronic voting machines ill equipped to handle her needs. None of the machines in her polling place, or the entire county, included a headphone jack allowing her to follow audio commands. Instead, poll workers moved a machine out of its dark but private carrel so Neely, who is not completely blind, could press her face close to the screen and vote independently.

Despite the hassle, it was the first time the 42-year-old social worker, who has never missed an election, cast her own ballot. Her past voting experiences included assisted voting under the watchful eyes of three poll workers. But Neely still sees room for improvement, and is working to represent the needs of other visually impaired voters.

Guilford County has used Direct Record Electronic, also known as touch screen, voting machines for 17 years and currently uses the Votronic system. Touch screen machines allow voters to choose candidates from a series of menus similar to a bank’s automated teller machine. The machines in Guilford County do not produce a paper record of the vote.

‘“Since the Help America Vote Act was passed, we have been trying to get some blind people on [the state elections board],’” Neely said. ‘“They have not wanted that input.’”

HAVA, which was passed in 2002 after the 2000 election debacle, required states to replace punch card and lever voting machines. In North Carolina, state election officials are requiring all voting machines to produce a paper backup. In addition, all polling places in the state must be accessible to voters with physical disabilities ‘— including visual impairment ‘— by the 2006 federal election.

All 50 states developed plans for the implementation of HAVA. The North Carolina plan featured a checklist of law requirements and whether the state complied in 2002. The state did not meet any of the accessibility requirements at that time.

As of 2002, about one third of North Carolina counties used DRE voting and one half used optical scan ballots. Voters using optical scan ballots must fill in the blank next to their chosen candidate and feed the ballot into a scanning machine. Although this system includes a built-in paper backup, the state board and most counties prefer DRE voting.

‘“Braille ballots are not practical because it is very time consuming and expensive to produce them,’” said Don Wright, general counsel for the North Carolina State Board of Elections. Only one county in Oregon and the state of Rhode Island bother to produce Braille ballots at all, Wright said.

Instead, he plugged touch screen voting as an accessible system for the visually impaired. Machines like Guilford County’s Votronics can be easily upgraded with headphone jacks. Now, under the looming deadline imposed by HAVA, the state’s machines must not only be outfitted with headphone jacks, they must also feature a paper record. And that is where George Gilbert, the director of the Guilford County Board of Elections, and Neely disagreed on the best equipment for the job.

Gilbert staunchly defended the accuracy and reliability of touch screen voting machines and questioned the paper backup requirement. One solution for HAVA compliance submitted by Gilbert involves replacing all of the county’s machines with newer models that record votes on a paper reel. The cost of the overhaul might run as high as $9 million in Gilbert’s estimation.

Neely expressed concerns over the reliability of the reel machines and the confidentiality of votes recorded in sequential order on the paper record. She has used a variety of machines aimed at providing access for the disabled and settled on the Automark machine as the user-friendliest model. Unlike Gilbert’s preferred model, the Automark relies on the old technology of optical scan ballots.

Automark machines combine the technology of optical scan ballots and touch screen voting. Voters insert the ballot into the machine, which then allows the voter to select their candidates through a series of audio cues. The machine then marks the ballot for the voter, who can reinsert the finished product to check for accuracy.

About 19 percent of North Carolina residents have a disability, according to statistics from the State Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and the State Division of Services for the Blind. That includes almost half a million voters statewide. People with disabilities are 20 percent less likely to vote than the rest of the population, according to a Rutgers University study.

Election officials have made great strides in opening polling places to wheelchair-bound voters. New rules regarding parking and building construction, along with digital images of every voting site, have increased accessibility. In addition, the state board produced a video to train poll workers about disabled voters that is used across the country.

The cost to replace Guilford County’s touch screen machines with optical scan ballots might be as low as $2 million. The state will provide grants to all 100 counties totaling $40-50 million to cover some of the cost of upgrading voting systems. Taxpayers must pick up the part of the tab not paid by state funds.

Gilbert contended that optical scan systems cost more in the long run because the physical ballots must be replaced every year and they require more staff members. Besides, touch screen voting is the most accurate system available, he said.

Problems in Carteret County, where touch screen machines lost 4,400 votes, resulted from human error, Gilbert said. Voting fraud has also existed since the introduction of the first paper ballot, he added.

‘“I’ve talked to my friends in Jackson County,’” Gilbert said. ‘“Every so often when they dredge the lake they come up with an old ballot box.’”

Despite all of the wrangling over what kind of technology Guilford County voters will use in 2006, no decision can be made until the state board approves a list of voting machines. Once that happens, Gilbert has invited Neely to participate in the final decision for Guilford County. The state board has not made such an overture toward visually-impaired voters, Neely said.

That said, blind voters are not waiting until the final decision is made to express their dissatisfaction with Guilford County’s machines and their preferences for the future. Groups have raised the issue at Guilford County Board of Commissioners meetings and in person at the board of elections. But one of Neely’s most immediate concerns is simply the lack of a list of approved machines three years after the passage of HAVA.

‘“If things don’t change,’” she said, ‘“disabled people are going to be without any prayer of being able to cast a real ballot.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.ccm.