Blind Voters Want Privacy
by Jack Hagel, The Associated Press and Milford
Daily news, September 22, 2002
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BOSTON - Jim Kinsellagh voted
differently than most people casting
ballots in the Massachusetts primary
He did it in the
unwanted company of a complete stranger.
Kinsellagh, who is
blind, needs the help of another person to vote.
allows blind voters to choose anybody they want to
help them vote - at the polls
or at home via absentee ballot.
But Kinsellagh lives
alone. He has no family in the area and most his
friends are disabled and have a hard
time getting to the polls with him.
So he was helped by
an election official.
"I felt like, 'Why do
I have to vote this way? And why can't I vote as
other people do - in total
confidentiality?' " said Kinsellagh,
50, of Brookline.
"As far as I know, the election official I would have to
go to at my polling
place could be a Republican. I have no idea as to whether
he or she is voting for the person I
have told him."
Like many states,
Massachusetts lacks the technology to let the 40,000
voters registered with the
Massachusetts Commission for the Blind vote
The state does not
offer a braille ballot.
That wouldn't help
Kinsellagh, anyway. He doesn't read braille, and he's
Less than 20 percent
of the 10 million legally blind Americans read
braille, according to Myra
Berloff, acting director of the
Massachusetts Office on
advocates have long been after local, state and federal
governments to implement ways for
blind voters to vote alone. Most
suggestions are based around ATM-style voting kiosks
equipped with headphones, a microphone
and a braille touch pad.
But the state has
been slow to approve the $4,000 machines for use in
its 2,100 polling places.
"It is very
expensive," said Brian McNiff, spokesman for the secretary
of state, who is responsible
for conducting elections.
McNiff said the state
is working with the Massachusetts Commission for
the Blind to make secret
ballots possible. But he said the
plans would not be
ready for the Nov. 5 general election.
"One of the concerns
with computer voting is security of the system," he
said. "I think the computer voting
needs some testing and needs some
proving that it can be workable
and safe and deliver an uncompromised
State laws for
approving voting machines place emphasis on the
In a September 2001
memorandum, Michelle K. Tassinari, the state legal
counsel of the elections division,
told voting machine vendors that in
order to win approval from the
state, they had to go through a lengthy
demonstrations and paperwork.
The state saw
demonstrations by LHS Associates Inc., a Methuen-based
company that distributes
kiosks, but LHS did not win approval.
Company president John Silvestro said
he can understand why states are
hesitating to put the
kiosks into use.
"People are going to
dip their toes in the water and make sure it's safe
before they start jumping in," he
states are waiting for a bill to pass in Congress that
would front the cash for these
"We like to think of
ourselves as a technologically savvy state," said
Michael Muehe, executive director of the
Cambridge Commission for
Persons with Disabilities. "But from
my personal experience, they're not
particularly progressive-thinking in trying to make their voting
process accessible to blind voters."
But some states have
taken steps to make all polling places accessible
to the blind.
Maryland and Georgia
and counties in Texas, Ohio, Colorado and Florida
have purchased voting systems,
according to the American Association for
People with Disabilities in
Rhode Island has
experimented with the machines and is one of the first
states to have a braille ballot, said
Jim Dickson, the association's
vice president. Massachusetts, in
turn, is one of the slowest states to
respond to the needs of blind voters,
"You have one of the
best in the country and one of the worst in the
country side by side," he said.
The voting machines
of yore - paper ballots, mechanical lever and punch
card systems - are difficult to
adapt for blind voters without using
braille, said Stephen Ansolabehere, a
political science professor at the
Massachusetts Institute for Technology. He headed the recent
Caltech-MIT Voting Technology Project
that was used by Congress to draft
"I think gradually
all states will have to take steps to change that,"
he said, predicting that states
will be bombarded with lawsuits from
want voting privacy after the 2000 presidential election
examination of the election processes in America.
The AAPD filed
federal suits against Jacksonville, Fla., Washington,
D.C., and Philadelphia under
the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The cities purchased voting machines
that would not allow blind voters to
vote privately, Dickson said.
its suit. The other two are pending.
a braille template that fits over a regular ballot,
used with an instructional audio tape,
McNiff said. But obtaining the
templates is a time-consuming process. So far, there have been
only four requests for them.
Ansolabehere said the
template system is difficult to use and probably
still requires the assistance
of another person.
Until voting systems
like the kiosk are implemented, Kinsellagh said he
will continue to vote with the
help of another person.
"It's not just an
issue of privacy and accessibility and
confidentiality," he said. "The
overarching issue here is that people
with disabilities - whether you're
talking about exercising our right to vote or social
interaction with people who
don't have physical disabilities - we are
always treated differently
simply because of an aspect of
ourselves that we have
no control over. It's what we
encounter every day of our lives."