How do blind people vote if they can't see the ballot?

April 8, 2015 • Posted in blindness, politics, technology for people who are blind, Uncategorized, Whitney by

Image of an 'I Voted' sticker, with an asterixLosing my sight meant losing a lot of things I’d taken for granted. One of those was The ability to vote independently, without anyone knowing how I voted. I relied on Mike to help me with a ballot. One time Mike was out of town during elections, so a polling judge from the Republican party and a polling judge from the Democratic party squeezed into the booth with my Seeing Eye dog and me — they both had to be there to confirm the ballot was being marked the way I’d asked.

After we moved to Chicago I got word that the city was sponsoring a free class at the Chicago Public Library to learn how to use new assistive technology that would allow voters who couldn’t see to vote independently. I signed up, put headphones on, and was introduced to a special handheld contraption the size of a cell phone that I could use to maneuver the screen and hear my choices. I sat at the library for hours, getting a feel for the machine and practicing pushing the big button on the middle of the device to mark my ballot.

I was very excited to use this new technology to vote for president in 2008, and my polling place had the special equipment on hand, but no one there knew how to make the sound work.

My experience in subsequent elections has gone something like this: I sign in, and poll workers scramble. All of them seem to want to do right by me, but few of them know what “right” is. Where are the headphones? How do you start the talking machine? Why isn’t the audio working? I wasn’t able to vote independently in the 2012 national election,
either. That time a special poll worker was called to the scene. She said I was the first blind person she’d worked with at a polling place. After flipping through the troubleshooting handbook, she plunked it down on the table next to me, announced there was “nothing in this book about talking machines,” and that was that.

Mike was voting-image.jpgdone voting by then, so just like back in 2008, he signed an affidavit, guided me to a voting booth, read the choices out loud and I told him (and anyone else near enough to eavesdrop) who I wanted to vote for.

That time I called the National Federation of the Blind voting hotline when we got home. The kind woman on the phone sounded surprised. The sort of assistive technology they had at my precinct usually works, she said. She took down my information, and then suggested I call my State Board of Elections. I did.

After a fair amount of time on hold, someone from the Illinois Board of Elections finally answered and listened to my story. “Were you able to vote in the end, then?” Yes, I said, making sure they understood that I wasn’t able to do it independently, and that the Help America Vote Act of 2002 mandates that voting systems provide some way for people to vote independently and privately, including those of us with disabilities. “You got assistance, then?” they asked. I told them yes, that my husband had signed an affidavit, that Mike had helped me in the voting booth. “So you were able to vote, then?” I said yes. “Okay, then, you’re all set,” they said, and hung up.

I cried after that election. The results hadn’t gone my way, I was disappointed in the low voter turn-out, and I wasn’t even allowed to vote independently like everyone else. I wasn’t angry at the poll workers at my precinct – they wanted the technology to work for me, they just didn’t know how to make that happen. In the end, I guess my feelings were hurt. It seemed the whole idea of people with disabilities voting independently in elections was a ruse.Blind justice!Fast forward to yesterday’s special runoff mayoral election in Chicago. I’d researched the issues. I’d studied the two candidates. Nothing else on the ballot. Just who I want for mayor. This should be a breeze.

And you know what? It was! Whitney led me to the polling place across the street, I signed in, a poll worker led us to the special voting booth, she handed me the special contraption, I put the headphones on, the sound came in loud and clear, and…abracadabra!I voted. All by myself. A small thing for some, but huge for me. And for all of us who are blind and want to vote independently.

blindbeader On April 8, 2015 at 3:02 pm

I am not familiar with the legislation regarding voting in Canada, but my voting experience seems to have been much more smooth than yours! For the past few elections, there have been paper templates that are placed over the ballots, so you mark your choice that way. Sure, a volunteer has to read all the choices for you, but I have been able to vote independently since I have been even remotely interested in government over the past 10 years or so.

This having been said, I can imagine the sense of accomplishment you felt, voting completely independently! Great work 🙂

bethfinke On April 9, 2015 at 9:20 am

So you mean someone reads the choices, but you get to physically mark the ballot? I will give my husband Mike Knezovich credit here -when he’s had to read the ballot out loud for me, he puts the pen or puncher where it needs to go and always encourages me to be the one who marks my ballot. It gave me a small sense of control, but I liked the experience I had Tuesday better — all on my own.

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Robert Ringwald On April 8, 2015 at 3:05 pm

Beth.

Do you know, or can you find out the name of this contraption? I’d like to ask about it here in CA.

-Bob Ringwald

bethfinke On April 8, 2015 at 3:10 pm

I’ll research it, Bob. Stay tuned!

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bethfinke On April 9, 2015 at 9:21 am

This is proving more difficult that I thought –have put in request to the National Federation for the Blind to see if they know who exactly makes the devices. I’ve said it before, but worth repeating: stay tuned.

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bethfinke On April 16, 2015 at 10:03 am

Bob,

I heard back from the NFB staff member who handles accessible voting issues,
She says she is not entirely sure which accessible voting system is used in Chicago, but some quick research indicated that it may be the Sequoia, and that this particular system is no longer manufactured.
She also said the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) requires that at least one accessible voting system be available in every polling place in every state for all federal elections.
Interesting to note, as the election I had success with earlier this month was not a *federal* election, just a city one, but she said many states have passed legislation to extend HAVA to all state and local elections. Under HAVA, she says that you in California have the right to vote privately and independently on an accessible voting system in all federal elections. California law may extend this right to all state and local elections, too, but I am not sure of that.
Hope this helps!

Hank On April 8, 2015 at 3:29 pm

Hi Beth,
Glad you got to vote independently. I know the blind people I take to the polls insist on it whenever we go. I’m also an election official in Alexandria, VA. We went back to paper ballots but we have some of the older electronic voting machines for special needs people. I think our voting machines are sound-enabled and all you have to do is plug the earphones in and it works. Last election, I even helped a woman who needed to use a sipper device and she was able to vote independently. As you said, the law requires that accommodations be available for every voter so, every voting station should have some system available already to enable independent voting. There are many different voting systems so your “contraption” will probably not be the same as another jurisdiction would use but I would suggest anyone who needs it make arrangements in advance to make sure it’s available. Sometimes it may be easier to vote early at your juresdiction’s election office, where both the equipment and people knowledgeable in its use are likely to be available.

bethfinke On April 9, 2015 at 9:23 am

Wow. Very thoughtful –and extremely helpful –comment, Hank. THANK you.

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Patricia Wright On April 8, 2015 at 3:58 pm

YEAH! Voting is an important act, I know you agree. I remember when my dad became a citizen, he was so proud to be able to vote. Voting was a big deal in our household. It is a big deal. And you should be able to do it independently. So glad that this go ’round was a success.

bethfinke On April 9, 2015 at 9:24 am

Good for your dad. And for your family when you were growing up. Imagine what an example parents who are blind or have other disabilities are setting for their children when they vote. Very cool.

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Monna Ray On April 8, 2015 at 5:30 pm

Beth,

I’m glad that at last it worked for you!. Now if I can just get the technician who is supposed to be installing WiFi in my apartment to successfully complete the task. I’v e decided that some things just aren’t supposed to happen smoothly.

Monna

bethfinke On April 9, 2015 at 9:25 am

Ha! Good luck, Monna. Or as my big brother Ron liked to say when we were growing up in the 60s…rotsa ruck.

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CShriver1 On April 8, 2015 at 7:25 pm

Hi Beth! I’m so excited for you getting to vote independently! Well done! I wish more people would take that right/privilege a lot more seriously! Thank you for going the extra mile. Your favorite fan, Charlene

Sent from my iPhone

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bethfinke On April 9, 2015 at 9:27 am

You are for sure my favorite fan now, Charlene,after encouraging others to take their privilege/right to vote more seriously.

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bigdebby On April 8, 2015 at 8:50 pm

We will never go through that nonsense again. We have not heard if what you mentioned; however, we do remember two judges, my husband and me. Tight sqeeze.

Have done absentee which has now evolved into vote by mail. Of course I still have to read it to my husband; fortunately we are on the same wave length politically so it goes smoothly! I provide an accommodation for him.

It is only fair since he is the one who understands directions and maps so he gets us where we need to go. And to think most people believe maps and directions are primarily a visual process.

bethfinke On April 9, 2015 at 9:29 am

Guess you’d call that a “resonable accomodation,” then, huh Deb?!

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bigdebby On April 9, 2015 at 2:04 pm

As Democratic Committee Woman for the 83rd Precinct here in Lee County, FL, my colleagues and I work hard getting people to vote. We are a minority but a feisty group. Early voting and Vote By Mail have made voting so much easier…even though efforts are afoot big time in FL to disenfranchise many.

Sheila A. Donovan On April 9, 2015 at 4:27 pm

Triumph! You got to vote on your own for the very first time!

bethfinke On April 9, 2015 at 4:43 pm

Well, first time since I lost my sight, at least.

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Benita On April 10, 2015 at 10:51 am

The woman who remarked, “So you voted then? Okay.” was an insensitive boor and she was the final straw for you and brought you to tears. I completely *get* why voting independently is a big deal. This essay sounds like you’ll be able to do that from this point on. Congratulations!
Of course, it would also be nice if your candidate wins…

bethfinke On April 10, 2015 at 11:14 am

Insensitive boor. Wish i’d thought of that.

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Heidi Thorsen On April 12, 2015 at 6:05 pm

Hi Beth, great article. Your persistence in achieving this simple, but vitally important American privilege was very heartening to read. I think it is so important to persist in making regular tasks accessible to all populations of people. Although my experience in accessibility is only for visual impairment, I know accessibility is important for all.

In a recent incident my son and I dealt with a very frustrating situation and I am not sure where to go to make sure improvements are made for those following after us. My son, a December graduate with a degree in Civil Engineering, registered to take the Entry Level Engineering test, which is a basic requirement for most entry level Engineering jobs so you are officially an Engineer In Training. After filing all the required paperwork for accommodations at the testing site, which took over two months of back and forth discussions, they informed us that the only accommodation they could provide was additional time. They could not invert the screen colors, they would not allow him to visit the site so he could see the lighting situation, and they cold not provide screen reading technology.. So, Andrew, after this long delay and consequently a long delay in being able to apply for jobs, just said he would go into the testing situation and do the best he could with what they offered. Fortunately, he could manage ok, and he was well enough prepared for the test to pass easily, however, had he had a greater visual loss (and his is quite bad), he would have not been able to take the test and they had no plan or provision for accommodation. To me this is not acceptable. Although Andrew has made it through and is on his way, I would like to bring this to the attention of someone so that future accommodations are more readily available. I realize that Engineering is not a field many VI people go into, but that should not deter a determined person. Any suggestions on how to dig into this deeper would be greatly appreciated. Somehow I feel this is certainly not the last time we will hit up against this sort of behavior.

By the way, the description “insensitive boor”, just fits so many things.

Heidi

bethfinke On April 13, 2015 at 7:08 pm

Heidi, This stinks. I do not have expertise in this sort of situation myself, but a friend of mine was in charge of testing for people with disabilities at the University of Illinois in Urbana a few years back, would you mind if I pass your comment on to him to see what he might suggest?

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Heidi Thorsen On April 13, 2015 at 7:22 pm

Oh, please do pass it on. Awareness and understanding can facilitate change. Thank you!

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