My Experience with an Accessible Voting Machine

by Paul Filpus

Elkhart, Indiana

When I first heard about accessible voting machines for blind people, I didn't think there would be enough people using them to justify the cost. As the 2006 Indiana Primary Election day grew near, an article appeared in our local newspaper describing the accessible voting machines for the disabled, and stated that one accessible voting machine would be available in each of the 13 precincts in Elkhart County. I wondered who among the disabled, other than blind people, would need a special machine. The article mentioned a touch screen for people with low vision, or for those with limited hand and finger movement. It went on to explain that the machines could be lowered for wheelchair users. When I learned that the machines would be made accessible to people with other disabling conditions, the idea made a little more sense.

I had my first experience voting independently as a blind person in the May 2, 2006 Indiana Primary. Although I've had no trouble casting my ballot with various forms of sighted help over the years, I looked forward to completing the whole process myself.

My wife and I arrived at our designated polling place just as the doors opened. We proceeded through the identification process, signing forms and showing picture IDs. In typical fashion, my presence as a blind person caused a little confusion among the workers. With that process completed, I mused that none of the workers had mentioned the availability of an accessible voting machine. Knowing the effort and expense that our country has gone through to provide these machines, I vowed that I would use one of them. "I'd like to use an accessible machine," I said.

"Oh, one of the young college students over there will show you the accessible machine," the worker said. I, of course, didn't know where she was pointing, but my wife saw where we needed to go. I was glad to hear that a young person would help me, knowing the voting machine would be computer-driven and that some older people aren't as comfortable with modern technology.

"Here's a set of earphones to put on," a man said. My wife chimed in to show me the stool and the position of the machine. I sat down and put the earphones on. Another young helper then began to slowly explain the buttons on the Diebold TSX machine to me. I soon realized the layout was similar to a regular telephone keypad, so I interrupted her and said no further explanation was necessary. They asked me if I was hearing anything, and I said I wasn't. I found the volume control on the earphone cable, but adjusting it didn't help. One of the students placed a couple of phone calls and found out she had to encode a card before the audio would be activated. Eventually the speech came on and the voting instructions began.

It was easy to go through the ballot and press the keys for my choices. In my opinion, the Diebold TSX was quite well designed. The speech rate was a little slower than I like, but I soon realized I could interrupt it at any time by pressing the key of my choice--just like you can in interacting with any typical recorded telephone message. For each candidate, I had the option to go back and change my vote before advancing to the next elective office.

When my last selection was made, the machine told me I was at the end of the ballot. I pressed the designated key to close, but was a little surprised to hear the machine tell me I had to verify that my last vote was a partial one. In that selection, I could have voted for up to two people, but chose to only vote for one. I verified that, pressed the key to close the session, and my ballot was cast.

I was the first person to use the accessible machine in my precinct--and for all I know, the only one. The next day I talked with my neighbor who was a worker in a different precinct. He said that no one had used their accessible machine. I shared my experience with him, and he said he would give my name to the election officials in case they wanted to contact me. The county clerk did so a few days later. I shared with her that the machine worked very well for me; except for the slight problem I had closing my session. I suggested a slight software change could easily fix that problem. She said they would keep my thoughts in mind. Hopefully she will pass along user feedback to the appropriate vendors.

I called a blind friend who voted in another precinct in Elkhart County, and asked her if she used an accessible machine. She said that nobody told her about it, so she just voted with her husband's help as usual.

In a follow-up newspaper article, our county clerk reported that about a dozen people used accessible voting machines in the 13 precincts during the recent election. The article also mentioned the cost of these machines was $400,000. Now that the accessible voting machines are here, it's not time to question the validity of the whole project. We, as blind people, should make every effort to vote with these new machines in every election, so that the decision to supply them will turn out to be a good one. It would be tragic for our country to go through so much effort and expense to provide accessible voting, and then find that few people really want it.

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