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 Article of Interest - Visual Impairments (VI)

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 election.


He did it in the unwanted company of a complete stranger.


Kinsellagh, who is blind, needs the help of another person to vote.


Massachusetts law 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 in secret.


The state does not offer a braille ballot.


That wouldn't help Kinsellagh, anyway. He doesn't read braille, and he's not alone.


Less than 20 percent of the 10 million legally blind Americans read braille, according to Myra Berloff, acting director of the Massachusetts Office on Disability.


Disabled rights 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 ballot."


State laws for approving voting machines place emphasis on the importance of voting secrecy.


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 process of 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 said.


Furthermore, many states are waiting for a bill to pass in Congress that would front the cash for these kiosks.


"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 Washington.


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, he said.


"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 election reform legislation.


"I think gradually all states will have to take steps to change that," he said, predicting that states will be bombarded with lawsuits from voters who want voting privacy after the 2000 presidential election prompted an 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.


Washington settled its suit. The other two are pending.


Massachusetts offers 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."


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