Future Reflections  Summer 2006

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My Right To Vote

by Barbara Pierce


Champion for access technology, Barbara Pierce, diligently records information with her electronic notetaker.Reprinted from the Winter 2005 issue of Buckeye Bulletin, a publication of the NFB of Ohio.

Editor’s Note: Among the most precious rights and responsibilities of a citizen in a democracy is the right to vote, and specifically the right to cast a secret ballot. But, like many of the freedoms we enjoy in this country, this is a right that we seldom think about and usually take for granted--unless it is raining on poll-day and we have to give ourselves a pep-talk about the importance of exercising our rights. But thousands of blind citizens have never until very recently been able to fully exercise that right; Barbara Piece is one of them. Below, Pierce describes her first truly independent voting experience:

In one respect November 8, 2005, was a day I will never forget. Lorain County, the county where I live, was one of the forty-nine in the state of Ohio that managed to place new touch-screen voting machines in polling places in time for the fall election. Lorain County choose Diebold machines, which meant that a special keypad was attached to at least one machine so that voters requiring or preferring enlarged print on the screen or a digitized voice speaking either English or Spanish could vote independently. I have voted about eighty times since I turned twenty-one, but this was the first time that my husband did not have to read the ballot and cast my vote for me. I was looking forward to performing this duty of citizenship independently, but I did not expect that it would move me as much as it did. As I say, it was an unforgettable experience that actually moved me to tears.

Of course not everything went smoothly. In the first place each precinct was supposed to have an accessible keypad attached to one precinct, so we should have had two accessible machines; we had one. Then, when I slid my plastic card into the slot, nothing happened. I tried tapping buttons--silence. Eventually I turned around and asked if something was supposed to be happening. Immediately something did. A posse of poll workers descended on me, and the other voters watched in great interest as ladies checked the cables, reseated my card, asked me questions about what I might have done wrong, and tapped on the machine in various places. Then they got out the instruction book, which suggested that they do the things they had just done. Eventually they called the board of elections. The experts there told them to check the connections and refer to the instructions. Ultimately we were passed along to the real experts at Diebold, who eventually thought to remind the officials that they had to program my card differently if I was going to use the access feature.

They extracted the card, reprogrammed it, and sent me on my way again. This time the machine began talking immediately. The female voice was speaking far too slowly for this speed reader, but the introductory instructions told me how to speed up the speech. I did so, but I must report that the system would be easier to use if a male voice had been chosen. Moreover, it is ridiculous in today’s world of rapid digitized speech without pitch distortion that Miss Diebold’s voice became painfully shrill and almost unintelligible when speeded up only two clicks.

The general instructions are quite clear, but they should include directions for jumping to each actual vote rather than leaving the voter to experiment with ways to skip through the pages of printed information about each issue or tax. I found it easy to vote for individual candidates; I just tapped the key that I was told would cast my vote for the key that I was told would cast my vote for that person. With the issues and levies, however, the instructions explained how to vote for each, but not a word of advice was there about how to vote against. As far as I could tell, one would have to first vote for the item and then reverse the vote. This seems awkward when several keys on the keypad sat there with no apparent function. One could easily have been assigned to record a no vote. After issue one I discovered that tapping the six-key would advance me to the vote itself, but I heard of several voters who were afraid of missing the opportunity to vote at all if they began punching keys to see what would happen, so they slogged through about twenty pages of text in their effort to cast their ballots responsibly.

In fact the system is constructed to make it almost impossible for a voter to ignore a vote. I wanted to under-vote the city council election, and Miss Diebold was quite disturbed about my decision and questioned me closely to be sure that this was my intent.
I was very impressed with the final step of the voting process. I heard the paper ballot being printed and was told that it might be used if a hand count were necessary. Then I was invited to listen to what was printed on that piece of paper. I would have been allowed to skip this step, but I did not. I checked to be sure that each of my votes had been recorded as I intended. I have questioned whether or not the machine was really reading the paper or was simply reviewing the original choices I had made. I have been assured that it was reviewing the printed document.

As far as I can tell, my votes were accurately recorded. I understand that Ohio does not allow its voting machines to be networked together. This means that anyone with plans to hack into voting machines to change the votes would have to deal with each individual machine. If poll officials were to try to fix the vote, both political parties would have to agree on the fix. I don’t say that it would be impossible to throw an election using these new machines (we have never before succeeded in conducting a completely fair election, so voting fraud will no doubt continue to happen), but I found the election process to be fair and relatively easy to follow. I will no doubt find it even easier the next time.

I recognize that I was much luckier than most blind voters. In half of Ohio’s counties no accessible machines were available anywhere. Even where they had been installed, insurmountable problems occurred in some places. In one polling place the keypad was cabled to a machine that had malfunctioned. Rather than moving it to another machine, which could have been done in a few seconds, the officials told blind voters that they would have to vote the old way. Another voter could listen to the general instructions, but when she pressed the button that should have allowed her to begin the voting process, Miss Diebold went back to the beginning of the instructions. Nothing could induce her to move to the ballot.

Clearly, poll workers could have used more training. Voters too would have benefited from knowing better what to expect. Everyone took longer using the new machines. But in May things should go more smoothly. I hope that Diebold will take our suggestions about the voice it uses and that it can eliminate the pitch distortion. A few more general instructions would be useful, and for goodness sake, tell us how to vote “no” and to skip the background information if we do not need to read it in order to vote responsibly. But all things considered, we could have faced many more problems than we did. I for one am very grateful finally to be an independent voter.

Did you know?
Here are a few of the interesting facts about the pivotal role the National Federation of the Blind is playing in the development of accessible voting for the blind:

THE STAGE IS SET: The fiasco in Florida in the 2000 election sets the stage for Congressional reform.

--July 2001: The NFB passes resolution 2001-04 calling for nonvisual access language to be included in election reform legislation at the federal and state levels. NFB members nationwide spring into action and contact their Senators and Representatives to explain the problem and offer a solution;

--December 2001: The House and Senate election reform bills both include specific non-visual access language;

--July 2002: Bob Ney, Congressional Representative from Ohio, attends the NFB Convention and promises to support independent access to the voting process for blind citizens;

--October 2002: HAVA--the Help America Vote Act--passes. It includes critical non-visual voting access language. NFB President Marc Maurer and Director of Governmental Affairs, Jim Gashel, attend the bill signing by invitation of the White House.

--September 2003: The NFB establishes the National Center on nonvisual Election Technology under a federal grant.

-- April 2004: The NFB files a complaint in the US District Court for the Southern District of Ohio on behalf of Barbara Pierce and other blind Ohioans whose civil rights have been violated because the state of Ohio failed to use available federal funds to purchase accessible voting systems.

--May 2004: The NFB nonvisual Access Election Technology Committee meets to discuss the criteria for accessible voting machines;

--July 2004: About 2,500 blind people have the chance to test at least six different prototypes of non-visual access election machines at the NFB Convention in Louisville, Kentucky;

--February 2005: The NFB Jernigan Institute organizes and hosts a national nonvisual Election Training Seminar; and

--July 2005: For the second year, prototypes of non-visual access election machines are available for blind conventioneers to test out at the NFB National Convention in Atlanta, Georgia.

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