Technology to Help Voters with Disabilities

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New federal guidelines will give millions of Americans with disabilities a chance to do something they never have done before: vote on their own. Election officials are busy shopping for voting machines that are accessible to people with disabilities.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Election officials are shopping for voting machines that are accessible to people with disabilities. January 1st is a deadline for states to meet the requirements of the Help America Vote Act. These new federal guidelines will give millions of Americans with disabilities a chance to do something they've never been able to do before on their own. Here's New Hampshire Public Radio's Dan Gorenstein.

DAN GORENSTEIN reporting:

Like most voters, Ross Doerr cherishes his opportunity to select political leaders. To him, it's totally worth the hassle adjusting his normal routine to fit in a trip to the polls. He says as a blind man, it just means investing some time.

Mr. ROSS DOERR (Voter): I go and I vote the early bird which means at 6:00 in the morning, I'm down there. A poll worker will come read the ballot to me. They check off my choices. I don't have a problem with that. While I haven't had the problem because I haven't had a choice, I would much have preferred to be able to vote just like everybody else.

Unidentified Woman: There's this flat space. It's just a little bit lower at about 4:00. There's your wheel and you'll hear a slight tick.

Mr. DOERR: The wheel is where now?

Unidentified Woman: Your hand's right on it right now.

Mr. DOERR: It is?

Unidentified Woman: Yeah.

Mr. DOERR: Oh. Oh. Gotcha.

Unidentified Woman: Yes, sir.

GORENSTEIN: Doerr is trying out one of the new voting machines. He's a part of a New Hampshire task force that will test out the available technology. There's a whole host of ways to mark ballots, everything from touching screens to blowing through air tubes to using pedals. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Manning says he's relying on task force members with disabilities to accurately review the various voting systems.

Mr. TOM MANNING (Assistant Secretary of State, New Hampshire): People who are blind that use systems that have synthesized voice can speed up that voice and speed it up to such an extent, to you and I, it might sound garbled.

Synthesized Voice: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln for president of the United States, colon, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Pat Bolton(ph) for United States...

Mr. MANNING: So it's much better to get their evaluation on a system that may employ a synthesized voice rather than to have me pretend that I have a sight impairment and try to evaluate the same piece of equipment.

GORENSTEIN: Maybe the committee's greatest challenge is predicting who will come to a polling place and what kind of disability they'll have. Given that any disability could come through the door, task force member Clyde Terry says it's all the more important to purchase voting machines that accommodate as many people as possible.

Mr. CLYDE TERRY (Task Force Member): We're not going to compromise on the principle that we want a machine that can provide the greatest amount of access for the greatest amount of people. The task force is not here to pick and choose. The standard is: How many people can be included in the political process? As many as possible.

GORENSTEIN: The Americans With Disabilities Act has required polling place accessibility for 15 years, but it's the Help America Vote Act that actually mandates every precinct in the country have at least one accessible voting machine. Gracia Hillman chairs the newly created federal Election Assistance Commission. To help ensure compliance, Hillman says the federal government is footing 95 percent of the bill.

Ms. GRACIA HILLMAN (Chairperson, Federal Election Assistance Commission): It's taken this country a long time to put in place laws and procedures that will allow people with disability to function independently. And so for the voting system to be available, I mean, that's a great opportunity and it's the least the United States can do.

GORENSTEIN: In the words of New Hampshire task force member Clyde Terry, it's amazing what dollars and a federal mandate can do. Terry says as a person with limited vision, he hopes now he'll get the chance to suffer the same indignities of standing in the snow and sleet of a January primary like everyone else.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Gorenstein in Concord, New Hampshire.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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