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Accessibility For All Voters - Has It Arrived?
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By Pokey Anderson, for VoteTrustUSA
January 11, 2006
An Interview with Dottie Neely, Advocate for the Blind
Dottie Neely has been visually impaired from birth. She can tell barely
tell the difference between dark and light, but she can tell when her
kids are smiling. "I would worry about how much less of my children's
smile I would see from day to day," she says. "And then I learned that
I could tell how much they smiled by listening, and by actually being
closer to them."
Dottie has advocated for the blind for the past thirty years. Dottie's
caseload consists of legally blind or potentially legal blind people.
She works for the North Carolina Division of Services for the Blind,
and the Guilford County Social Service Department. She has served her
state's National Federation of the Blind (NFB) as president and board
member, and has been active in a raft of other offices and groups.
She believes that "everyone ought to have the right to vote no matter
what their disability," and has been eager to try out various kinds of
voting equipment. She finds some systems fall short of providing the
accessibility that Congress legislated in the Help America Vote Act
(HAVA). The system in her county, the Votronic, currently lacks even a
basic headphone with audio instructions for the blind.
Dottie adds, "Not only do we have a problem of getting a machine that's
accessible, but with all of this, there ought to be strong voter
registration drives, and strong educational campaigns to alert people
to the fact that there are [accessible] machines, and they're not going
to be treated like second-class citizens or like dummies when they go
to the polls." In the past, typically, an election official would be
assigned to assist a disabled person cast her vote. That doesn't always
turn out to be nonpartisan. She says, "Oh, I've actually been to the
poll, and voted, and had the person say, 'Why do you want to vote that way?!'"
We talked about her testing of Diebold and AutoMARK equipment, and how
she rates them on accessibility. Later in the article, we'll look at
additional equipment, as well as some of the undercurrents that can
threaten fair appraisals of voting equipment.
Dottie Neely: Yes, I did check out the newest generation Diebold machines. At the National Center for the Blind.
Pokey Anderson: Ok. And, so, the latest Diebold machine, what kind of grades would you give that?
DN On a score of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best, probably a 2.
PA Oooh. What did it lack?
DN Well, Diebold is a fine maker of ATM machines. But you don't need
to do the same tasks with an ATM machine as you do with a voting
machine. There are many more choices, and you need the capability to be
able to even use the keypad to do some write-in things. You listen to
the Diebold machine, and it takes forever to listen to not only the
prompts, and they tell you what you did, and they ask you if you're
sure. And you can't change the speech. You have to go with that
program, as constant as it is -- you can't say, I want to skip to the
next thing and do it; you have to go through their whole program.
PA Are there some audio interfaces that you can speed up if you want to listen faster?
DN Yes, the AutoMARK does that. Slower, or faster.
PA So, the Diebold is only one speed.
PA And, are you able to skip around in there, or do you have to go straight from start to finish?
DN Straight from start to finish. And, if you choose to skip, it will
tell you undervoted, and ask you for sure if you want to undervote.
And, I guess for some people that's ok, but for people who want to get
in and out of there in a hurry, it's just slow. Very slow.
PA Any idea how long it took you to do it?
DN There never was a real sample ballot on any of the machines, to be
honest with you, that I've tested. But, there were approximately the
same number of items on the ballot. And, I got through the AutoMARK
program at least three times faster than the Diebold machine.
Dottie also noted, "The Diebold machine breaks down more times and the
screen freezes more also. I've had it happen when I was using the
Diebold machine. And, if that happens, then you don't even know for
sure if your vote's counted."
PA And, so where did you test the AutoMARK? Was this the same place?
DN No. They had an AutoMARK available, or at least in the building at
the National Center when I was there in mid-October. But it was not set
up, and they said it would take a lot to get it set up, and so that was
never offered. I've used the AutoMARK machines at least twice here in
North Carolina when we had a demonstration for the Mayor's Committee in
We had a public event where that was the major piece of information
available to the community. We had about 320 persons come out and use
that machine, and they were absolutely elated. It could do what they
wanted it to do, and with no instruction. They were just handed the
keypad and the earphones and they went through the program and recorded
their ballot and took the paper out. And could've put it in a ballot
PA So, were these all visually disabled people, or where there other ...
DN There were other disability groups involved, such as people who had
spastic hands. There was a young lady who used the head pointer. And
the buttons on the keypad were big enough that she could very easily
and independently make her choices. The other thing I like about the
AutoMARK machine is, it doesn't have to be the machine used just for
the disabled. Anybody can vote on that machine. Take the keypad off and
the earphone jack out, and it can be a voting machine that everyone can
Then, the other opportunity we had to do this, was both the National
Federation of the Blind and the American Council of the Blind had
voting machines at the convention in 2004, our convention. NFB was in
Charlotte. And the ACB was in Burlington. And, at those conventions, a
total of about 550 blind people used those machines.
DN Yeah. We did not have a complaint in the bunch. About the AutoMARK.
PA Not one complaint?!
DN Not one.
PA Not one. Wow. That's amazing!
(Dottie did note that there was no other equipment at the
demonstration, even though other vendors were invited. As for a
numerical score, she gave the AutoMARK, which is marketed by ES&S,
an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best.)
POTENTIAL CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
PA I should just make sure I get this from you. Do you or anybody in
your family get any financial benefit from any company that makes
DN No ma'am.
DN No financial, or other benefits at all.
PA Okay. Just wanted to make that clear.
One national group, American Association of People with Disabilities,
has sent its lobbyist, Jim Dickson, to various states to testify in
favor of touchscreen voting for the disabled. However, that group
received at least $26,000 from voting machine companies, it admitted to
the New York Times in 2004.
Dottie has been a state officer in the National Federation of the Blind
(NFB), I asked her about the relationship between Diebold and NFB.
Diebold, which makes ATM machines as well as voting equipment, has made
a one million dollar donation to the capital fund of NFB, one of the
nation's major organizations for the blind. NFB has endorsed Diebold
electronic voting machines on its website, and has published pictures
of Diebold's then-CEO Walden O'Dell attending the NFB's gala (shown on
right), where their research and training institute director called him
"our wonderful friend." Diebold, on its website, calls the NFB its
That doesn't phase Dottie though. She still finds the Diebold equipment
wanting. "Well, just because they did that doesn't mean we should
totally -- We should support the better product, and not what's
DOTTIE NEELY'S RECOMMENDATION
PA So, to sum up your recommendation, Dottie, based on what you know
and what you've tried out and what you've heard, what would you
recommend to the people in charge?
DN I would say please take a look, a strong look, at the AutoMARK
machine. It seems to have a reputation of accuracy. It's accessible not
only for visually impaired people but by other disability groups. And
it will ensure that a secret independent ballot can be cast by disabled
ACCESSIBILITY vs. VERIFIABILITY - A FALSE CHOICE
Some have tried to pit the needs of people with disabilities against
the need to have elections that are accurate, recountable and
transparent. "When I started in 2003, some people didn't understand how
paper ballots could be accessible, so they pushed for paperless
touchscreen machines to solve all of the voters' problems," said David
Dill, a Stanford computer science professor and founder of the Verified
For example, U.S. Rep. Bob Ney (R-OH), a principal author of the Help
America Vote Act (HAVA), sent out a Dear Colleague letter to other
members of the House and Senate, warning them against amending HAVA to require a
voter verified paper record:
"Various proposals have been introduced in the House and Senate, but a
common feature of these bills is they would amend HAVA to require that
all voting systems, including electronic and computer-based systems,
produce or accommodate a 'voter verified paper record.' Not only are
such proposals premature, but they would undermine essential HAVA
provisions, such as the disability and language minority access
requirements ... Most importantly, the proposals requiring a
voter-verified paper record would force voters with disabilities to go
back to using ballots that provide neither privacy nor independence..."
"Now," says Dr. Dill, "most people are realizing that there is no need
for conflict between accessibility for voters with disabilities and the
integrity of the voting system for everyone." Dill served on the
California Secretary of State's Task Force on Touch-Screen Voting in
2003. (Verified Voting Foundation, July 28, 2005)
Dr. Dill testified before the Carter-Baker Commission on Federal
Election Reform on April 18, 2005:
"[The Association for Computing Machinery, the largest professional
organization of computer technologists, adopted a position against
paperless electronic voting after an internal poll showed that 95
percent of their membership agreed with the position. ... [In the 2004
election,] we collected hundreds of reports from all over the country
of odd voting machine behavior, including machines that selected the
wrong candidate and machines that sporadically left candidates off of
the ballots. The vast majority of these problems have been left
uninvestigated and unresolved. ... paperless electronic voting is a
technology that is fundamentally hostile to election transparency. No
one can tell what is going on inside the machines, and there are no
procedural changes that can remedy that flaw. ... We need
voter-verified paper ballots."
The Help America Vote Act has ushered in a rush in many states toward
electronic voting (DREs), despite the inability to meaningfully recount
an electronic election if it lacks a voter-verified paper ballot. Some
proponents of DREs have insisted that HAVA requires an electronic
voting device in each precinct. However, there is no requirement for
electronic voting by HAVA -- just a requirement that each precinct have
at least one voting station that can provide accessibility for the
disabled to be able to vote. (For more on this, see "The New EAC
Advisory And What It Means," by John Gideon)
ALTERNATIVES NOT TESTED
Of the major companies that make DREs, the accessibility interfaces of
Sequoia and Hart InterCivic were not tested by Dottie Neely. It wasn't
for lack of trying -- it was Dottie who wrote to all
of the makers of adaptive equipment for voting, and AutoMARK was the
only one that showed up on two occasions in NC. "I will tell you that I
wrote the same letter to every one of them. So, it was an even pitch,
if you will. And, AutoMARK was the only one that showed up."
Since then, a brand new accessibility device has been developed, and is
now being examined in several states. The Voting-on-Paper Assistive
Device, or Vote-PAD, is designed to be a low-tech, non-electronic
aid to voters with visual or dexterity impairments. It offers the voter
the option of using vision, touch, audio, or braille. The Vote-PAD
developer is software technical writer and election reform advocate
Ellen Theisen. It expands on some of the features of the tactile ballot
which has been in use in Rhode Island and elsewhere. (In the photo, a
blind voter tests a prototype of the Vote-PAD, shown at the Portland
National Election Reform Conference.) Dottie Neely
has not yet tried the Vote-PAD.
"I'm certainly open to learning about other types of [devices]," Dottie
told me. She feels this round of adoptions may not be the last word.
This is likely the case, as the Election Assistance Commission is still
developing guidelines, and few vendors offer equipment that is fully
accessible for every kind of disability. Hopefully, feedback from
disability groups will continue to improve voting systems, while being
uncompromising on the bottom line of any election -- trustworthiness
for every vote, no matter how cast. If not, says Dottie, "I know that
there are lots of people including myself who say that if accessibility
is not offered to us in the 2006 election or shortly after that, there
will be some litigation."
SEQUOIA, TESTED BY NOEL RUNYAN
Early in this process, Noel Runyan of California, a blind voter and
computer scientist who is an expert in designing accessible systems,
told me that some of the voting companies appeared to have ignored
feedback they solicited from groups of blind voters as they were
developing their systems.
Noel has broad experience in the field of disability access. While at
IBM, he developed the first text-to-speech program ever used on
microprocessors. He has also done work on adaptive technologies for
people with dexterity problems.
Recently, Noel has examined the Sequoia AVC Edge DRE, including using
it to vote in several actual elections. In his view, this equipment
"falls far short" of meeting the requirements for disability access of
"In my opinion, the Sequoia AVC Edge DRE does not satisfy the
disability access requirements of HAVA, as incorporated into New Mexico
law. This opinion is based on (1) the Edge’s complete lack of any
accommodation for persons with severe physical dexterity impairments
who are unable to use touchscreens or keypads; (2) the gross inadequacy
of the Edge’s audio assist feature for persons who are blind or low
vision; and (3) the Edge’s failure to accommodate elderly voters who
have developed severe visual impairments with age but are unfamiliar
with and unable to cope with audio-only access technology because they
have had normal vision most of their lives. In short, it is my opinion
that a large portion of disabled citizens who attempt to cast their
votes on Sequoia AVC Edge voting machines will be unable to do so....
In summary, it is my opinion that the Sequoia AVC Edge voting system is
disability accessible in name only and is not a voting system that
meets HAVA disability accommodation requirements in any significant
respect." (Sworn Affidavit of Noel Runyan, 11-page attachment to
Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction, December 19,
2005, in Patricia Rosas Lopategui v. Rebecca Vigil-Giron, Secretary of State of New Mexico)
One advocacy group has spoken out specifically on dexterity issues.
Here is an excerpt from the statement of the National Association of
Protection and Advocacy Systems:
"NAPAS is committed to ensuring that elections are accessible to all
voters with disabilities, including those with dexterity disabilities.
NAPAS does not endorse the AutoMARK or any other voting machine. ...
NAPAS does not disagree with all of the criticism of the AutoMARK
machine, but is concerned that a campaign has been waged against the
AutoMARK machine in particular, even though most of the other machines
on the market are significantly less accessible to voters with
POLLING PLACE ACCESSIBILITY
"Only three voting systems on the market -- AccuPoll, AutoMARK, and
eSlate machines -- have a dual switch input option. A dual switch input
on a machine allows voters with dexterity disabilities who use
technology, like sip and puff, to mark their choices on a ballot
independently. Many machines, such as those produced by Diebold and
Sequoia, do not have a dual switch input option, which means that
voters with dexterity disabilities that use a sip and puff, foot
petals, joy sticks or other alternative selection devices, will not
have privacy or independence in any part of the voting process. Voters
with dexterity disabilities who need to use these types of devices to
make selections must have a poll worker or someone else make their
selection for a candidate, thereby totally denying them a private and
"It is difficult to understand why the AutoMARK machine in particular
has become the focus of such intense criticism when other machines
provide far less accessibility or no accessibility at all for
individuals with dexterity impairments." (July 12, 2005, link)
One other voting accessibility component is often overlooked, but has
become increasingly vital with the aging of our population. A recent
comprehensive study of polling places in the state of Wisconsin found
that 41% of the places themselves were physically inaccessible, because
of stairs, heavy doors, long distances to be traversed, or hallways
blocked. ("Polling sites told to lift barriers; High percentage not
accessible to elderly, disabled voters," by Kay Nolan, Nov. 5, 2005,
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
Much work remains to be done to clear the way for all voters,
regardless of type of disability, to be able to vote privately and
[See also Kim Zetter's article "Vote-PAD Rocks the Disabled Vote"]
Pokey Anderson is co-producer of the news and analysis show "The
Monitor" at KPFT Radio in Houston (Sundays, 6 pm CST, www.kpft.org).
She has aired numerous reports on voting machine issues over the past
three years. Some of her research was included in "How They Could Steal
the Election This Time," a cover story by Ronnie Dugger, August 16,
2004, in The Nation. She has done
research with a number of authors, including extensive research for the
book on Enron, Power Failure by Mimi Swartz with Sherron Watkins. Her email is: Pokey at kpft.org.
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