Help America Vote Act: Overcoming Accessible Voting System Challenges
By Julia Freeman-Woolpert
For Carol Holmes of Derry, the first time she voted independently was a thrill. She lost her sight at age 13 and had always voted with the help of someone else. When the State of New Hampshire adopted technology to mark and cast a ballot using a phone and fax system, making voting accessible for those with vision or print disabilities, Holmes finally had her chance.
Holmes is active in her community and well acquainted with the poll workers. So when she arrived at the polls, they were waiting for her and as excited as she was. Holmes practiced with a demonstration system prior to the election, so she knew what to expect. The process worked beautifully: the poll worker dialed the number and handed Holmes the phone, who selected her candidates using the touch pad, hung up, and the ballot was faxed to her.
Before Holmes voted that day, she hadn't realized how much it would mean to her. But, once she cast her ballot independently, she felt the momentousness of the act. She was delighted: "It means I'm a first class citizen and can vote like anyone else."
New Hampshire's Implementation of the Help America Vote Act
The Help America Vote Act declares that "The voting system shall … be accessible for individuals with disabilities, including non-visual accessibility for the blind and visually impaired, in a manner that provides the same opportunity for access and participation (including privacy and independence) as for other voters." In New Hampshire, the system that was selected over other choices was an economical dial-in, fax-back system that originally had been designed for prison systems to allow the public to check on an inmate's status. In addition to the phone and fax machine, New Hampshire's wheelchair-accessible booth comes with a headset, magnifying glass and light.
Ed Meskys' experience voting in Moultonborough was textbook perfect. Meskys had taken advantage of the practice number provided by the New Hampshire Secretary of State, which allowed him to practice using the phone ballot at home. By election day, he felt pretty confident he knew how to use the system.
Meskys' wife drove Ed and his guide dog to the polls. Meskys checked in, and a poll worker led him to the booth, dialed the phone, handed it to Meskys and exited the booth. Meskys listened as the ballot was read over the phone, made his choices of candidates using the touch-tone phone, and then retrieved the ballot when it was faxed back to the booth. A poll worker brought Meskys to the ballot box, and he cast his vote independently. Then, he went on about his busy day.
Meskys had been concerned about the privacy of his ballot, since he knew of only one other blind person in town, and he knew the faxed ballots looked different and were cast in a separate slot than the one for other ballots. He checked with the poll worker, who explained that, to ensure privacy, all the poll workers cast their ballots using the phone-fax system.
Unfortunately, in some polling places, the phone-fax system hasn't worked as smoothly as it did for Holmes and Meskys. The following stories outline two examples of the difficulties encountered by New Hampshire voters.
Voter one, a resident of the Seacoast, was looking forward to finally voting privately and independently. She, too, has always had to rely on the help of a friend or family member in the booth, or, occasionally, the moderator, when she much preferred to keep her vote private.
Voter one and her mother drove to the polling place together. She signed in with the friendly and helpful poll worker, who escorted her to the accessible booth. The poll worker explained the procedure and then dialed the phone. Nothing happened. She tried again. Still nothing. A second poll worker was summoned. Unsuccessful, the workers sought assistance from a third and fourth person, yet, an hour later, they still weren't connected. "I never got past step one," voter one said. Once again, she had to vote with her mother's assistance.
Voter two, a resident of the southern region of the state, has tried to use the phone-fax system in the last two elections. The first time, the system wasn't set up. He reluctantly agreed to vote without it. The second time he tried to vote, the system was set up, but when the poll worker tried to dial in, there was no dial tone. The only poll worker familiar with the system wasn't available, so voter two was left in the booth alone for about 15 minutes while the officials tried to locate additional assistance. Meanwhile, he explored the system with his hands and discovered the phone wasn't plugged in. Yet, once plugged in, the system still didn't work, and he had to vote without privacy or independence once again.
Sadly, these are just two instances from election sites around the state in which disabled individuals were unable to exercise their right to vote privately and independently due to simple and avoidable issues, such as jammed faxed machines or disconnected telephones.
In addition to the operational problems of the phone-fax voting system, another concern is that the faxed ballot looks different from other ballots and, in many polling places, is put in a different section of the ballot box. Since there are so few of these ballots cast in any given polling place, the privacy of the ballot is compromised.
Improving the Process
People with disabilities have historically voted in lower numbers than the general population, partly due to the difficulties they have encountered casting their ballots. Many have voted by absentee ballot because they could not access the ballot in the booth, and thereby missed out on an important part of community life. We all should enjoy the right to full participation in our communities, our state and our nation. Access to voting privately and independently is a keystone of that right.
Anyone who will be setting up for elections or working the polls on election day should be trained in using and troubleshooting the system. Training is offered through the Secretary of State's office, and a toll-free help line is available: 800.540.5954. Step-by-step directions to set up the voting system are posted online at www.sos.nh.gov/ .
The Help America Vote Act has made voting accessible for many more people with disabilities. The phone-fax system is less than ideal and difficult to work with, but for now, it's what the state has selected for us to work with. A little extra effort in the next election to ensure the system is functioning correctly will be greatly appreciated by citizens who rely on the system. Your neighbors are counting on you!
Julia Freeman-Woolpert is outreach director for the Disabilities Rights Center. She can be reached by phone at 603.228.0432 or e-mail at email@example.com .