Nonvisual Election Technology Training Curriculum

Voting, Accessibility, and the Law

The Help America Vote Act

Election reform legislation became a priority of the 107th Congress following the Presidential election of 2000. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA), signed into law on Tuesday, October 29, 2002, was enacted as a response to the problems that occurred during that election cycle. The authors of the bill were Senator Christopher Dodd, Chairman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee during the 107th Congress, Senator Mitch McConnell, then the Ranking Member of the Rules Committee, and Representatives Robert W. Ney and Steny H. Hoyer, the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Committee on House Administration during the same Congress, respectively. HAVA's goal ultimately is to provide all Americans an equal opportunity to vote with privacy.

President George Bush surrounded by staff, signing the Help America Vote Act on October 29, 2002.

Prior to the Help America Vote Act, there was no legal requirement that mandated the right of blind people to vote independently. Regulations only recommended that election officials take steps necessary to afford persons who are blind or visually impaired that right. Recommendations ranged from using magnifiers and signature guides, making Braille or tactile overlays on top of large print ballots, making low-cost modifications on voting machines, such as placing large print and Braille labels on the controls as well as providing Braille and an audiotape of the ballot content and instructions on how to use the machine. Because these recommendations have limitations and do not provide full independent access, the National Federation of the Blind took an interest in assuring that any new legislation would address these shortcomings.

During the mid-1990s, the NFB, headquartered in Baltimore, began to work with the state of Maryland and its voting jurisdictions to improve voting accessibility for the blind. Baltimore City purchased a Sequoia electronic voting machine (also referred to as Direct Recording Equipment or DRE), with the expectation that it could be made accessible, but included accessibility in later generations of its DRE machines. DRE is the first type of voting equipment in which the blind are able to cast ballots independently and in private. After the 2000 election debacle, Maryland was perhaps the first state to require a uniform voting system and require that the chosen system be usable by nonvisual means. This same approach has also been adopted by the state of Georgia. The use of a uniform voting system improves the likelihood that poll workers will have knowledge of the equipment used by blind voters because it is the same as for other voters.

Sequoia's AVC Advantage or Edge Machine,  Direct Recording Equipment (DRE)The Help America Vote Act was created to establish a program providing funds to states to replace punch card voting systems, to establish an Election Assistance Commission, to assist in the administration of federal elections and to provide assistance with the administration of certain federal election laws and programs, to establish minimum election administration standards for states and units of local government with responsibility for the administration of federal elections, and for other purposes. States are required to file a state plan in order to receive certain election reform funding from the federal government. They also must meet the requirements of Title III mandating voting system standards which includes the accessibility requirement, provisional voting and voting information, a computerized statewide voter registration list and a requirement for voters who register to vote by mail (to make it easier to register and detect fraud), voter education programs, election official education and training, and poll worker training.

With the passage of the Help America Vote Act, Congress appears much more concerned about the conduct of federal elections. Congress has committed to funding the purchase of machines that are accessible to the blind through nonvisual means. This advances accessibility for blind voters more than any other statute. On or after January 1, 2006, Congress will require voting jurisdictions to provide at least one accessible machine per polling place. Any machine purchased with funds made available under this act on or after January 1, 2007, must be accessible. To facilitate compliance with this aspect of the HAVA, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) was awarded a grant from the Department of Health and Human Services to demonstrate and evaluate the usability of nonvisual election technology and to provide disability advocates and election officials with a source of expert information about such technology.

A recipient of a payment under section 291 may use the payment to support training in the use of voting systems and technologies and to demonstrate and evaluate the use of such systems and technologies by individuals with disabilities (including blindness) in order to assess the availability and use of such systems and technologies for such individuals. At least one of the recipients under this subsection shall use the payment to provide training and technical assistance for nonvisual access. Funds should make polling places, including the path of travel, "accessible to individuals with disabilities, including the blind and visually impaired, in a manner that provides the same opportunity for access and participation (including privacy and independence) as for other voters." Funds should be used to provide individuals with disabilities, including blindness, information about accessibility of polling places, including outreach to inform individuals about accessibility. Funds may also be used to support the training of election officials, poll workers, and election volunteers.

The Importance of Voting

Voting in any election is important because it provides blind and visually impaired citizens with the opportunity to voice their opinion about elected leaders and policies and to help shape the future by electing candidates who share their views.  Elected officials make decisions and pass legislation that establish the maximum income a blind person can earn while still receiving social security disability benefits, the minimum wage rate paid to blind workers in sheltered workshops, and the health benefits blind citizens receive under Medicare and Medicaid.  Consequently, voting for candidates who share their views on these issues is one of the most effective ways that blind and visually impaired citizens can influence policy and legislation addressing these issues.  To assist protection and advocacy systems personnel, state election boards, and consumer organizations in encouraging the active participation of the blind and visually impaired in voting activities, the NFB has prepared The Blind and Visually Impaired Voter's Guide to Voting.  The guide is available in Microsoft Word, formatted Braille (BRF), and audio format.

Hosting a voter registration drive is a second way that protection and advocacy personnel, consumer organizations, and service groups can encourage the blind and visually impaired members of their community to participate in the electoral process. The NFB has developed a guide that contains suggestions for planning and conducting a voter registration drive that will be accessible to the blind. The Blind Voter Registration Drive Guide is available in Microsoft Word and formatted Braille (BRF).

Surveys of blind voters conducted by the National Federation of the Blind have indicated that the biggest barrier to voting privately and independently faced by blind voters is the untrained poll worker who does not know how to set-up or operate the accessible voting machine. Poll workers who are blind and who have experience voting on accessible machines can help to eliminate this barrier. The NFB has developed a flyer that contains information you can use to conduct a workshop to educate and encourage blind voters to become poll workers. The Blind Poll Worker Recruitment Flyer is available in Microsoft Word and formatted Braille (BRF).

Random Sample Telephone Survey of Blind Voters

As part of its Help America Vote Act grant funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children and Families, the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute conducted a telephone survey of blind individuals of voting age, who were randomly selected from a standard list, following the November 4, 2008, national election. A total of 557 blind individuals, representing every state plus the District of Columbia, were surveyed by the research firm of Hollander, Cohen, and McBride of Towson, Maryland to determine what they experienced as participants in the voting process.

The survey data reveals results that are encouraging. Ninety-four percent of the 557 individuals surveyed are registered to vote, and ninety percent of those who are registered actually voted in the November election. A private, independent ballot was cast using an accessible voting machine by eighty-five percent of the individuals who voted at a polling place. Ninety percent of the individuals who voted at a polling place reported that they were treated with the same dignity as others. The vast majority of those surveyed (eighty-nine percent) reported that they were satisfied to very satisfied with their experience voting. In addition to data related to voting, data on Braille literacy, gender, education level, age, and family income were also collected.

A flyer summarizing the results of the survey for election officials and protection and advocacy personnel is available in a Microsoft Word and Duxbury formats.

The survey results also illustrate the important role that well trained poll workers play in fulfilling the goal of HAVA to provide blind Americans with the opportunity to vote both privately and independently.  A flyer for use in poll worker training is available in Microsoft Word and Duxbury formats.

2012 Blind Voter Survey

Following the November 6, 2012, elections, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) conducted an online survey of blind and visually impaired voters to assess and compare their voting experiences to the results of a similar survey conducted following the November 2008 elections. The 2012 survey was completed online using Survey Monkey and was available from November 6 through November 21, 2012. A total of 537 blind and visually impaired voters completed the 2012 survey as compared to 566 who participated in the 2008 random sample telephone survey. The same questions related to voter experience that were asked in the 2008 survey were used in the 2012 survey.

Data from the 2008 and 2012 blind voter surveys indicate a positive trend in the number of blind voters who cast their ballot at the polls and who did so with an accessible voting machine. However, the results of these surveys also indicate a decrease in poll workers' knowledge of how to operate the accessible voting machine, a decline in poll workers' treatment of blind voters, and a decline in blind voters' satisfaction with their voting experience. These declines in the experience of blind voters who cast their ballot at the polls may negatively impact the participation of blind voters in future elections. Through the information provided by these surveys, state and local elections officials and disability rights advocates can work to improve poll worker training to ensure that blind voters have the same positive voting experience as their sighted peers.

Affiliate Voting Liaison Program

As a result of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), the opportunity to cast a private and independent ballot now exists for blind and visually impaired voters in all federal elections. However, untrained poll workers, voting machine malfunctions, and the lack of accessible voting machines in the polling places are preventing some blind and visually impaired voters from fully exercising this right. The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) Affiliate Voter Liaison program was created by the NFB to provide our members with tools and resources they can use in working with state and local elections officials to remove the barriers that make elections inaccessible to blind and visually impaired voters. The resources contained in the guide prepared for this program, The Affiliate Voter Liaison Toolkit, can be used by any organization to develop a grassroots voter liaison program in their community. This program was developed under a HAVA training/technical assistance grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Community Living.

Why the NFB?

The grant requires the eligible entity to be a public or nonprofit entity with demonstrated experience in voting issues for the disabled, governed by a board with the majority of its members being disabled or having family members who are disabled. The NFB applied and ultimately got the grant because of its long commitment to research and improvement of nonvisual technology. Due in large part to the International Braille and Technology Center (IBTC), the NFB has emerged as a leader in knowledge on nonvisual technology. The NFB further meets the grant requirement because it is a membership organization consisting mostly of blind members.

Goals for the Grant

Blind voters using accessible voting machinesThe NFB's two primary objectives are to demonstrate and evaluate the usability of nonvisual election technology; and to provide disability advocates and election officials with a source of expert information about such technology so that blind and visually impaired individuals will be able to cast secret ballots with accessible technology installed at every polling place in America by  the year 2006. The primary objectives are called for by the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) and come particularly from section 291 of the act.

These primary objectives will be accomplished by means of three subordinate objectives as follows: to establish and operate a National Center on Nonvisual Election Technology, which will be used to demonstrate and evaluate the usability of relevant technology in a non-marketing context; to develop and publish recommended criteria to serve as a guide in the evaluation and selection of election technology suitable for nonvisual use; and to provide advocacy and election personnel with knowledge to make informed decisions on the procurement and implementation of election technology suited for nonvisual use.


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