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Accessible Voting Machines
by Paul Filpus
Here in Elkhart County, Indiana, we have had one accessible voting machine per precinct for the last four elections. The first time I voted on one was in the May 2006 Indiana Primary.
The poll workers in my precinct were not very well prepared to acquaint me with their accessible voting machine in that 2006 Primary. It took them quite some time to get the machine ready to run, but I just attributed that confusion to inexperience with a new process. The problem still existed after several election cycles however. I believe this is partly due to the fact that the machines have only been used by a few voters. In that 2006 Primary, only a dozen or so disabled people voted with them in the 12 precincts of Elkhart County, so the people working at the polls aren't getting much experience in helping disabled people use the new machines.
Three days after our November 6, 2007 mayoral election, I received a phone call from a WNDU TV newsman from South Bend, a city in St. Joseph County, just to the west of Elkhart. He was looking for a blind person who had voted on one of the accessible machines in St. Joseph County, but found that nobody had done so. He said it had cost a million dollars of federal money to supply the accessible machines in his county, and he was understandably wondering if the project was worth the cost.
He had conducted an Internet search and found that I had written an article on my first experience with an accessible voting machine in 2006. That article was published by DIALOGUE magazine, and the broadcaster found it posted on the magazine's Web site at http://blindskills.com/sep_oct_2006_sample2.html . He asked to interview me for the evening news. He and his photographer came over and spent a pleasant half hour asking me about my thoughts and experience in using an accessible voting machine.
The main question I was asked was "Do you think it was a good idea for the government to provide accessible voting machines for the blind?" Apparently my answers didn't totally satisfy him, as he asked me the same basic question in several different ways. Not surprisingly, time permitted only a few of my comments to be included in the actual news broadcast. One of them was: "Now isn't the time to decide whether or not we should have the machines; they're here, and the money's been spent, so let's use them." Another statement I made, when pointedly asked to say why I personally need the machine, was this: "The difference now is that I'm totally independent. If I didn't want my wife to know who I voted for, I could vote for whoever I wish." That comment, unfortunately, didn't say much for the need for voting independently. Actually, I said it in jest, for my wife and I have voted for the same political candidates over the years. I said some good things about the accessible machine as well, but those comments were not included in the broadcast.
When I first heard of the need for accessible voting machines for blind people, which was a year before they became available in Indiana, I thought the cost/benefit ratio was not very attractive. Besides, I had voted for years with the assistance of my wife or election board officials and didn't see a real need for accessible voting privilege. Now that the machines are in place, however, I feel the blind community needs to make use of them. If not, the general public may conclude that providing accessible technology for blind people is not putting their tax dollars to good use.
If northern Indiana is typical of the country at large in regard to the response to accessible voting machines, I don't think those who lobbied for them properly analyzed the need. I hope blind organizations conduct better needs assessment studies of accessibility issues in the future.
One program of high priority, in my view, is the service provided by the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. Additional funding is currently needed to meet the 2008 launching goal of the new digital format technology, which will greatly enhance the Talking Book Program. I fear that programs like NLS might suffer when politicians and the public at large realize how much money has been spent on projects like accessible voting machines and how few people are taking advantage of them.