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System Targets Disabled Voters (Automark) PDF  | Print |  Email
By Cindy Wojdyla Cain, Herald News (Joliet IL)   
October 31, 2005
Reprinted with permission of the author and SuburbanChicagoNews.com

Casting ballots: Automark works with various devices

Rick Parrish of Joliet has been voting for 37 years, but he's never been able to mark his own ballot. Parrish was born blind so his wife, Valerie Brew-Parrish, has had to mark his ballot for him. "I would take her in (to the voting booth) and tell her who I wanted to vote for," he said.

That's all about to change. Parrish and thousands of other Will County voters with disabilities will be able to cast ballots independently for the first time in March. Will County Clerk Nancy Schultz Voots signed a contract on Friday for a $2 million Automark voting system that complies with federal Help America Vote Act rules.

The act grew out of the 2000 presidential election voting debacle in Florida. Handicapped accessible voting devices are the final piece of a complete overhaul of the nation's voting system. Will County switched from punch card to optical scan voting ballots last year as a result of the act.

Here's how the county's new Automark system will work: All voters will be offered a chance to use the devices when they arrive at a polling place. People with visual impairments will use headphones to hear ballot choices. They will push a keypad to vote. People with motor impairments can use hand or foot pedals to vote. The pedals will be provided at polling places. People who use "sip and puff" devices to operate wheelchairs can use the same systems to vote by plugging their equipment into the voting machines.

Judd Ryan, regional sales manager for Election Systems and Software, the Nebraska company that makes Automark, demonstrated the system to county clerk employees and Parrish and his wife on Friday. Parrish is the first vice president of the Coalition of Citizens With Disabilities in Illinois. Brew-Parrish is a disability consultant.

Automark ballots are identical to all other county ballots and the system does everything that the county's optical scan system can do, Ryan explained. It will warn voters if they overvote in a race, it leaves a paper trail and it allows for write-in candidates.

Voots will hold her first election judge training session on the new system on Thursday. "My job is to take the time and have classes so they know how to use the system," she said. "I think it's going to go well."

Automark can be used by a wide variety of people ranging from someone who forgot their reading glasses to someone who is completely blind. People who are illiterate or have reading disabilities like dyslexia also can use the system. Motor skill disabilities can range from minor grip problems to quadriplegia.

Brew-Parrish is a polio survivor. For years she needed her husband's help to use the punch card voting system. Last year, Brew-Parrish was able to vote on her own for the first time using the optical scan system. But she plans to use the Automark system next year because she can use a foot pedal to vote.

The Parrishes hope more people with disabilities head to the polls next year to test the new system and to get their voices heard. "I'm excited. I really believe in the near future you'll see people with disabilities get more involved in the political process," Parrish said.

"People died for our right to vote," Brew-Parrish added. "We take that seriously."
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