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National Issues

Accessibility For All Voters - Has It Arrived? PDF  | Print |  Email
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.

DN  Yes.

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 Greensboro.

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 box, whatever.

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 use.

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.

PA  550!

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.)

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 voting machines?

DN  No ma'am.

PA  Ok

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.

Since 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 "strategic partner."

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 politically correct."

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 people.

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 Voting Foundation.

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)

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."

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 HAVA.
"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 dexterity disabilities.

"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 independent vote.

"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 independently.

[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, 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
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