Braille Monitor                                                             March 2007

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Preserving Ballot Access for the Blind


Purpose:

To affirm the right guaranteed by the Help America Vote Act for the blind to vote independently and in private so that this right is not sacrificed in the haste to address security concerns.

Background:
In the wake of the 2000 presidential election, states and political subdivisions scrambled to update antiquated voting systems with new electronic and computer-based systems. The advent of new electronic voting machines means that, through the use of text-to-speech technology, blind people can have the opportunity to vote independently and in private for the first time in American history. Recognizing this possibility, Congress incorporated nonvisual access provisions into the landmark Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002.

Since the passage of this historic legislation, questions have arisen about the reliability and security of electronic voting systems. As a result jurisdictions have implemented a wide array of measures to address these concerns, most of which rely on some kind of paper record of ballots cast. Jurisdictions in forty-five states now require paper records of ballots.

In the rush to implement these so called voter-verified paper trails, little consideration has been given to the effect upon nonvisual access. The result, however unintended, is that blind voters use voting equipment considered unfit for sighted voters and have their ballots segregated from those of other voters. In some jurisdictions the blind can use text-to-speech technology to cast their ballots, but cannot independently verify that their choices are recorded correctly on the paper ballot of record. Some jurisdictions have switched to paper ballots for sighted voters, while the blind still use paperless electronic systems, thereby segregating votes cast by the blind from all others. Worst of all, a few jurisdictions have simply refused to purchase new accessible voting systems, ignoring the right to vote independently and in private guaranteed to the blind under HAVA.

Existing Law:
The Help America Vote Act declares the right of the blind to vote independently and in private. The law requires that accessible voting technology must be universally deployed to achieve this right. In its primary access provision HAVA requires access to the voting system for individuals with disabilities, including the blind, “in a manner that provides the same opportunity for access and participation (including privacy and independence) as for other voters.”

The accessibility provisions of HAVA took effect in January 2006. The law states that accessibility can be achieved by at least one Direct Recording Equipment voting machine, “or other voting system equipped for individuals with disabilities,” in each polling place.

Need for Congressional Action:
The concerns about the security and reliability of voting systems have resulted in a threat to access for the blind promised by HAVA. For instance, to date only one known voting machine provides full access by the blind to paper ballots of record. This limits the options available to jurisdictions seeking both to implement HAVA’s access requirements and to address the demand for paper ballots.

Moreover, the committee charged by HAVA to establish guidelines for voting systems is expected to recommend verification methods that are independent of voting equipment and software, conceding that only paper ballots would currently meet this requirement, effectively endorsing paper trails. Therefore, gains made by the blind are threatened if access is not given equal emphasis, alongside security, with respect to voting systems.

Congress faces substantial pressure to amend the Help America Vote Act. If HAVA is amended, the blind, like all other Americans, want a system that provides confidence that our votes are counted accurately. Therefore, any legislation enacted should:

Requested Action:

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