by Curtis Chong
From the Editor: This article appeared in the fall issue of Que Pasa, the newsletter of the National Federation of the Blind of New Mexico. It is written by Curtis Chong, a man who began voting long before there were any kind of civil rights laws addressing the voting rights of blind people: before one was allowed to bring a person of his or her choice to the voting booth, before one could come to the polling place alone and be assisted by a judge from each party, and before the time when machines would allow for the casting of a truly secret ballot.
For all the progress we have made in assuring that blind people have the right to cast a secret ballot, this article shows that we still have some distance to go. In the March issue of this publication we will hear from Lou Ann Blake, the staff member and fellow Federationist who works so hard to see that provisions of the Help America Vote Act are enforced and the technology available to us is enhanced. Here is what Curtis has to say:
Members of the National Federation of the Blind of New Mexico will recall Resolution 2014-04, passed at our 2014 convention, which expressed "extreme disappointment with Secretary of State Dianna Duran for the failure of her office to involve and consult with the blind community during the evaluation and certification of the Dominion ImageCapture Evolution (ICE) voting machine" (This resolution was printed in the June 2014 issue of Que Pasa).
Some of our members had tried the new Dominion ICE voting machine during a "mock" election held in Albuquerque in late March, and others had taken advantage of the opportunity to examine the new machine when representatives from Bernalillo County brought it to our 2014 convention. For the most part, as reflected in the resolution, we were unimpressed with what was supposed to be the latest and greatest in nonvisual voting technology, and we were extremely displeased by the failure of the Secretary of State to involve the blind community during the early stages of the evaluation and selection process.
Since the time of our convention, blind voters in New Mexico have had the chance to use the Dominion ICE in both the primary and midterm elections. I regret to say that, with very few exceptions, our experience using the Dominion ICE in a real election was even worse than anything we might have imagined when we passed Resolution 2014-04.
I don't know what speech synthesis engine is being used in the Dominion ICE. What I do know is that the quality of the voice used on the Dominion ICE is significantly worse than the voices we hear when we run our computers with the latest screen reader or our iPhones with VoiceOver. Anyone who has used the AutoMARK to vote in a previous election will marvel at the consistency and quality of the speech on that system—especially as compared to the muffled speech and poorly pronounced words on the Dominion ICE.
Some voters have reported that the volume of the speech on the Dominion ICE tends to go up and down even while one happens to be reading a proposed amendment or bond measure. It has been reported that because of this, lengthy proposals are very difficult to understand.
Perhaps more significant is the deplorable fashion in which candidate names are pronounced. The Dominion ICE massacres Hispanic names; this problem was far less noticeable with the AutoMARK. In many cases, candidate names, as spoken by the Dominion ICE, sound much different from the way they are spoken on radio or television.
Since the Dominion ICE is supposed to be the latest and greatest in voting technology, you would think that it should out-perform older access technologies that have been used for years by the blind. Not so with the speaking rate controls.
When speech is first turned on in the Dominion ICE, the speaking rate is slower than a normal speaking rate. Some blind voters might be tempted to speed things up. Fortunately, the Dominion ICE does have a button which does this. Unfortunately, when the speech is made to talk faster, words are actually chopped off. For example, "party" becomes "part," and "voting" becomes "vote."
Slowing the speech down presents a different problem: an echo effect seems to be introduced, and syllables are long and drawn out, making some words impossible to understand.
The way in which a blind voter must operate the Dominion ICE does not demonstrate an understanding of how we use our computers and iPhones today. Nor does it reflect any appreciation or awareness of how the nonvisual user navigates through lists and lengthy passages of text.
The first problem is that when you are navigating through the list of candidates in a particular contest (often a list with only one entry), you are thrown out of the contest when you move past the last name in the list.
When this happens, you have to press a left arrow key to move back to the contest and a down arrow key to get back into the list of candidates for that contest. This is frustrating, especially if the list is short (i.e., contains only one or two names). The problem is even worse when you are trying to vote the last contest on the ballot. In this case, if you should move past the last name in the list, you cannot simply press the left arrow and the down arrow to return to this last contest. No. The software thinks that you are finished voting and takes you right to the summary function, which means that you then have to traverse the ballot, contest by contest (two key presses per contest), until you reach the last one. Good nonvisual interface design would avoid this problem by keeping you in the contest when the bottom of the list is reached and enabling you to move back up to the top of the list so that a selection could be made.
The second problem is that, after you have selected one or more candidates for a particular contest, the Dominion ICE insists on repeating your selection—not once but twice—before you are permitted to move to the next contest. Good nonvisual user interface design might repeat your selection once, but certainly never more than once.
The third problem relates to long passages of text such as the text contained in a proposed bond issue or constitutional amendment. The blind user is forced to listen to the entire text of the passage. There is no opportunity to back up one word, line, sentence, or paragraph. If you miss something, you have to listen to the entire passage again—all in all, an unnecessary waste of time.
As Resolution 2014-04 indicates, Secretary of State Dianna Duran never reached out to the blind community during the time that her office was evaluating and selecting a replacement for the AutoMARK. If we had been as involved in the evaluation of the Dominion ICE as we were in the selection of the AutoMARK, we would have told the Secretary of State in no uncertain terms that the Dominion ICE was not a good voting system for us.
I am sure that the secretary of state will maintain that the Dominion ICE is the best nonvisual voting system on the market and that there is no competing product which would better meet the needs of blind voters. However, I have had a chance to examine at least one competing voting system, and I can say with certainty that blind voters in New Mexico would have been a lot happier with this machine had it been selected.
Despite our tremendous unhappiness with the shabby treatment meted out to the blind community by Secretary of State Dianna Duran and her office, and regardless of how much we find fault with the Dominion ImageCapture Evolution (ICE), the bottom line is that New Mexico is not going to abandon the Dominion ICE voting system any time soon. On the plus side there is a very good chance that over time the Dominion ICE will get better. But the improvements will surely not happen unless we continue our efforts to identify the problems and offer detailed suggestions for improvement.