Editor’s Note: the picture used for this post is from a voting machine demo not an actual election.
This year the process to vote changed in Georgia. For years I have voted independently by physically going into my local precinct and casting my ballot. I accomplished this by using the accessible voting machine. While sitting at the machine, I would use a headset and listen to my ballot and select my candidate with a large raised button keypad. I would confirm those selections and then give the plastic voter card to a poll worker and leave. I perform this task year after year at each election. But decisions were made that said this method of our voting system was not safe and secure because there was no paper ballot to track our votes. We needed a better system to ensure our democracy. Efforts began and a contract was signed to select new machines; ones that would print out a paper ballot.
Research Consulting on Accessible Paper Ballot Machines
Last year in May I participated in a research project at Georgia Tech on accessible paper voting machines. I tested two different models and gave feedback on the audio quality, keypad functionality and overall ease and use of the machine. Additionally, I was told that these paper ballot machines would print the ballot but store inside for safety and security.
Now fast forward to this year. Unfortunately, the machine that I recommended along with other disabled consultants was not selected. The new paper ballot machine that we are using to vote is not completely accessible. I am feeling some distress because my ability to remain independent and keep my vote private have been removed.
Attended New Paper Ballot Machine Demo
In February I attended a voting machine demo to educate myself on how to use this new machine. I was glad because there are a couple of steps that are different than before. The representative explained the steps one by one and then allowed us to come up and practice with a dummy ballot. The first step was having to get help with the touch screen to sign in. In the past I would give my Georgia ID to a poll worker who would fill out a paper form for me to sign. Next, I sat in front of the machine, which was much larger in size, and began to vote. The keypad was very different and it took a few minutes for my fingers to get adjusted to the buttons. The audio quality, which I have complained about to the Secretary of State’s office before, was somewhat better. But I was annoyed and distracted by the constant reminder of the color of the buttons. For example, “press the green left arrow or press the blue down arrow, etc. I was confused by the insistence of telling me the color of the buttons when I am blind and can’t see them. I just found this very distracting and, in some ways, it hindered my ability to vote. But I pushed through and continued on with the process.
Once I got to the end, I confirmed my selections and press the option to print my ballot. Now this is where the accessibility issue crops up. The machine printed out a large piece of heavy stock paper that I couldn’t see. I was not able to confirm that this paper had the candidate that I selected. All the other people in the room were sighted and could stand there and confirm their selection on their paper ballot but I was not able to do so. I was told by a poll worker that they could do it for me or I could bring someone with me on election day. I inwardly frowned and bristled at both of those options because for years I have always voted independently. Also, my privacy is now gone if I allow another person to see and read my marked ballot. Those of us in the blind community have fought for so long on this issue and now it seems we are right back where we started. Yet I wasn’t finished voting. The poll worker walked me over to another machine where we placed my ballot face down and inserted it inside. Once we heard the click sound my ballot was truly cast. I left this demo with mixed feelings. On one hand I was glad for the instruction but on the other I now realized some of my independence was gone.
The Actual Voting Day
During the March presidential primary, I decided to early vote. I was anticipating all kinds of issues with the new voting machine and I wanted to avoid them as much as possible. The coronavirus was just hitting Georgia and we had not started sheltering in place or practicing social distancing yet. No facemask or gloves either. I walked in, got set up and started the voting process. I told the poll worker I was already familiar with the new machine and knew what to do. Once I finished voting the paper ballot printed out and the poll worker came over to ask if I needed help. I had been told that I could use accessible scanning apps on my smartphone but declined that option. I barely use those apps on a regular basis and would be fumbling around trying to do that. Since the ballot was a short one with few candidates, I opted for the poll worker to confirm my selections. She did and walked me over to the other machine to actually cast my ballot.
Now it’s time to vote again. The coronavirus has caused the elections for the general primary and presidential preference primary that was to be in May to now be moved to June. I am wondering do I go to the polls again or do an absentee ballot. Both options look rather bleak and inaccessible for me. If I go to the polls, I will have to wear a facemask and gloves and risk possible exposure to the virus. Also, I will have to deal with the inaccessible paper ballot machine situation. If I do absentee ballot, I can stay at home but have to get a sighted person to read my ballot; losing my privacy and independence there as well. It seems either way I really don’t win completely when it comes to voting and accessibility.