Losing 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 done 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.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.