Braille Monitor                          January 2020

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Vote by Mail Ballot Now Accessible to Blind Coloradans

by Curtis Chong

From the Editor: when many of us think of Curtis Chong, we think of his stellar work as the director of technology at the National Federation of the Blind and his longtime leadership of the National Federation of the Blind Computer Science Division. But Curtis cannot be pigeonholed by technology. He is a Federationist who participates in every aspect of the organization, and here is what he has to say about voting in Colorado:

There are four states in this country where elections are held entirely by mail. These include Oregon (2000), Washington (2011), Colorado (2013), and Hawaii (2019). Every registered voter receives a ballot in the mail. The voter marks the ballot, puts it in a secrecy envelope or sleeve and then into a separate mailing envelope, signs an affidavit on the exterior of the mailing envelope, and returns the package via mail or by dropping the package off at an authorized location or drop box. Think of this as an absentee ballot for everyone.

A blind Coloradan who cannot see the printed mail ballot must either find someone to help mark the ballot (hardly a secret ballot in this case) or travel to a polling facility where the accessible equipment might or might not work. Even if the equipment at the polling facility does work, most of us are nowhere as familiar with the voting system's nonvisual access technology as we are with the technology we use on our smart phones and computers.

Following on the heels of Maryland and New Mexico, the National Federation of the Blind of Colorado determined that the time had come for the printed mail ballot to be accessible to the blind and other voters with disabilities. With the incredible help and support of our good friend Senator Jessie Danielson, SB19-202 was adopted by the Colorado General Assembly without any opposition, $50,000 was appropriated, and on May 29, the bill was signed into law by Colorado Governor Jared Polis. SB19-202 states, in relevant part:

"The secretary of state shall establish procedures to enable a voter with a disability to independently and privately mark a ballot or use an electronic voting device that produces a paper record using nonvisual access, low-vision access, or other assistive technology in order for the voter to vote in a mail ballot election…The procedures shall include a method, to be determined by the secretary of state, by which a voter with a disability may request such a ballot…A voter with a disability who receives a ballot pursuant to this subsection…must print the ballot sent by electronic transmission and such ballot must be received by the election official in the applicable jurisdiction before the close of polls on the day of the election."

As any blind person who has worked with websites knows, it is not a given that a particular site will work well with our screen reading and magnification technology. Hence, we determined early on that we should prevail upon the Colorado Secretary of State to involve our members in the testing of the system before it was rolled out to the public. A number of our members had a chance to test the system. We identified a few problems, and most of them were addressed in time for the statewide coordinated election held on November 5. We are confident that by the time of the primary election on March 3, 2020, all of the issues we have identified will be fixed.

Unlike the online ballot-marking tools in Maryland and New Mexico, the Colorado system gives voters with disabilities immediate access to the ballot as soon as printed ballots are sent out in the mail. The voter goes to a specific website, provides verifying credentials, and is presented with the online ballot. There is no waiting for a link to the ballot to be emailed. Once the ballot has been marked and reviewed, the voter prints both the ballot and the ballot application. While the ballot application is filled out by the online system, the voter still has to sign it. Some voters might need help with the signing process, but the secrecy of the ballot is still maintained.

For those people who say that there is a problem for anyone who doesn't have access to a printer, I have found that (at least in Windows) the printing of the ballot and accompanying ballot application can be saved as two separate PDF files. These files can then be copied to a flash drive. You can take the flash drive to a facility with a computer and a printer.

In conclusion, I would be pleased to share any and all information with anyone who wants to make the printed mail or absentee ballot accessible in his/her state. There are financial and technical considerations involved in doing this, but the overall impact to a state's budget is, as I see it, negligible. The important principle to keep in mind is prior testing before implementation. Be sure that real live blind voters have an opportunity to try the system before it goes live and work actively with the people who are involved with the design, development, and support of this new system. In this way, you can ensure that whatever is rolled out will be both accessible and usable.

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