by A.J. Chwalow, L. Blake, and M. Riccobono
From the Editor: Since passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), the NFB has been deeply involved with training blind voters and election officials to use accessible voting machines. We have evaluated equipment and written manuals. Immediately following the 2008 presidential election the Jernigan Institute staff conducted a study of how well the election process had gone for blind voters. Here is a layman’s version of the final report:
November 2008 was an exciting time for us all. No matter what your politics, you had to be excited by the level of interest and eager to see the results of the national and state elections. The National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute (NFBJI) has been one of the leaders in advocacy for blind voters and has been working with the government since the passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). Our primary goal has always been to make voting more accessible to blind voters at the national, state, and local levels. The NFBJI has been active in training poll workers, preparing manuals, and setting up training sessions for blind voters by providing voting machines to practice on. As a part of HAVA the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute has been awarded grants in the past that have allowed it to evaluate the voting experience for blind and visually impaired voters and to develop training curricula for polling place workers that make the experience accessible. In support of this objective, we commissioned a survey to be conducted with legally blind voters immediately after the 2008 presidential election.
Between November 6 and 17, 2008, the NFBJI provided a list of 10,000 households located all over America. In order to be included in a telephone survey, 994 households were contacted and screened for inclusion. Of these 581 indicated that a member of the household age eighteen or older cannot read regular print, such as newspapers, at a normal reading distance, even with best corrected vision. Of those 566 individuals were able and willing to speak with an interviewer; of these, 560 were confirmed legally blind and were interviewed.
Almost all (94 percent) of the legally blind people interviewed in this study said they are registered voters, and nearly all of these registered voters (96 percent) voted in the November 2008 election. This strengthens any future advocacy efforts of the NFBJI, because we can show that 96 percent of our members vote. Of these, a third (38 percent) voted by mail or absentee ballot, while nearly two-thirds (62 percent) voted at the polls.
Half (51 percent) of the blind voters who cast their ballots at a polling place did so independent of assistance, while more than a third (39 percent) relied on the assistance of a family member or friend, only a tenth (9 percent) required the assistance of a poll judge, and a few (1 percent) used a paper ballot and/or a magnifying glass.
Just under two-thirds (63 percent) who cast their votes at the polls said they requested or were offered the use of an accessible voting machine. Most said that the voting machine was up and running upon their arrival (87 percent) and that the poll workers had no problems setting up or activating the machine (81 percent).
A majority (87 percent) of voters who cast their votes using accessible voting machines experienced no problems with the machine. Of the 13 percent who did encounter problems, the two most frequently mentioned issues were that the workers were not trained and did not know how to operate the machine or the machine was not set up, or they could not adjust the audio speed or the audio did not work.
A majority (86 percent) who used accessible voting machines were able to cast a secret ballot. The 14 percent who could not cast a secret ballot most often said workers could not operate the machines, there were no working machines available, or they felt more comfortable with assistance.
Blind voters appear to have felt they were treated well by poll workers since nearly all believed that they were treated with respect (94 percent), they were treated with the same dignity as other voters (91 percent), and they were given the same privacy as other voters (85 percent). In addition, most felt that they had not been rushed (94 percent), poll workers did not make them feel as if they were a bother (92 percent), they were not treated as if they lacked the capacity to vote (90 percent), and they were not treated as if they were incapable of voting independently (89 percent).
Including those who voted by mail and in person at the polls, 89 percent were satisfied with their overall experience, so it is not surprising that a majority (61 percent) offered no suggested ways to improve the experience. The most frequent suggestions were to make accessible voting machines available (6 percent), educate or train poll workers (5 percent), be sure accessible voting machines are set up and working properly (4 percent), provide larger print or magnification (4 percent), and make it possible for blind voters to cast an independent and private vote (4 percent).
Survey participants were also asked if they would be interested in receiving training on the use of accessible voting machines. Those most interested in receiving training were among those who were less than satisfied with their most recent voting experience (72 percent).
More than half (59 percent) of the individuals interviewed in this study can read Braille. The likelihood of being able to do so is higher among those who are younger (81 percent under age twenty-five), the more educated (73% with postgraduate education), the employed (68 percent), and those with an income above $50,000 (65 percent).
We know the history of the NFBJI in advocacy for blind and low-vision people. We can see that NFB members are more likely to read Braille and be employed and educated. Since passage of the Help America Vote Act, Federationists have been aware of the NFB’s efforts to make voting for the blind more accessible. With this evaluation we can now say that we have had an impact at all levels of voting: national, state, and local.