Exeter Pioneers Accessible Voting in 2023 Town Election

By Bob Glowacky, Communications Coordinator, Exeter TV Coordinator/IT Assistant

This year, the Town of Exeter became the first Town and the second municipality (after the City of Concord) in the State of New Hampshire to offer fully accessible voting to voters with vision impairments. It was a great success! Using the OmniBallot tablet, an accessible polling place ballot marking device, all voters were able to vote privately and independently for the first time in a town and school election. Voters used a tablet, keyboard, mouse, and headset to listen to the town warrant articles, navigate through the questions, and make their selections. State and Federal Elections use a very similar tablet ballot marking device, called One4All, but that system is not available for Town or City Elections.

town of exeter logo

Exeter Voter Jean Shiner, who is blind, was one of the first voters to use the system to cast her vote. “It was thrilling to me” she recounted, “I was able to vote for the town ballot and the two school district ballots independently and privately. And this is the first time I’ve been able to do that.” Ms. Shiner went on to explain that she previously needed to have someone in the booth with her to vote in local elections. Typically, the Town Clerk would join her in the voting booth, read her the candidates, voting options and ballot questions, and then mark the ballot by hand, as directed by Ms. Shiner. The Exeter Select Board heard from a coalition of voters in the Town urging accessible ballot making at the polling place for all voters, and implemented the system in March 2023.

Previous to the implementation of the OmniBallot tablet system, voters with vision impairments had only two options. They could go into normal voting booths with a family member or election official from the polling place who would read the ballot to the voter and mark the ballot according to the voter’s direction. Alternatively, the voter could request an absentee ballot, vote in their home, with the assistance of someone they trusted, and then mail in or deliver their absentee ballot to the Town. Neither of these options provided vision-impaired voters with a private and independent way to mark their ballots, at the polling place.

With the OmniBallot tablet device, voters with vision impairments are now able to check in with the ballot clerks at the polling place, receive the same exact ballots as every other voter, and vote independently. A voter who tells a ballot clerk that the voter wishes to use the accessible ballot marking device is then guided by election officials to the private voting booth with the

voting machine

OmniBallot accessible ballot marking device. Election officials assist the voter with loading all the ballots into a printer, in the correct order, and explain to the voter how to use the OmniBallot tablet to mark the ballots. The voter is then left to mark the ballots privately and independently. When the voter is finished marking the ballots, the voter can then print onto the ballots loaded into the printer the ballot markings chosen by the voter, using the OmniBallot tablet. Nearby election officials then assist the voter with navigating to the ballot counting machines so that the voter can feed his or her ballots into the machines, completing the process of voting independently, with a secret ballot.

Select Board Chair Niko Papakonstantis was very pleased to see the system implemented for the local town and school elections. “We’ve been using these types of systems for our national and state elections, and we’re very excited that we’re the second community in the State of New Hampshire to use a tablet voting system for our local elections, really allowing everybody to be able to vote, have easy access to voting.”

In the lead up to the elections, the process was very smooth for Town staff. The Town Clerk and Town Manager’s office worked with the vendor by sending existing PDFs of town and school ballots which were returned formatted for the OmniBallot system on a flash drive. The files were loaded onto the tablet, tested by Town Clerk Andrea Kohler, and were ready to go. The only change for the Town and School District Clerks in preparing the ballots was that the ballots all needed to be printed on the same length paper, to have all the markings fit on the ballots correctly. Previously, school district ballots were 11 inches long, and Town ballots were 14 inches long. For the March 2023 voting day, they were all 14 inches long. This was a very small change to the prior process.

The system proved to be an efficient and effective way for the Town to offer accessible voting for those who need it. The system, however, is not just for those with vision impairments. It can be used by any voter, including those who may have trouble holding a pen to blacken all the ovals on the ballots, which may run to five pages, or more. All voters are welcome and encouraged to take advantage of the system which makes it easy to select your choices quickly, using on-screen navigation, and the printer marks the ballot for them. A ballot marked using the accessible ballot marking device is a uniform ballot, indistinguishable from all the other ballots cast at the polling place, further ensuring the anonymity of voters who use the system.

Municipalities that are interested in learning more about Exeter’s positive experience with the OmniBallot tablet accessible polling place ballot marking device may contact the Town Manager’s office at (603) 773-6102 / pmcelroy@exeternh.gov or the Town Clerk’s Office at (603) 773-6105 or akohler@exeternh.gov.

Bob Glowacky is Communications Coordinator, TV Coordinator and IT Assistant in the Town of Exeter.  He may be reached by phone at 603.418.6425 or via email at rglowacy@exeternh.gov.