Online Voting for the Blind: Security Should Not Supersede Access
By Curtis Chong
The ability to vote using a secret ballot that can be marked privately and without coercion has long been a fundamental cornerstone of America’s democratic system. For centuries, blind voters were forced to rely on the help of election judges, trusted friends or relatives, or other human readers to mark their ballots. This deprived them of the right to a truly secret ballot. Blind people like me, who wanted to participate in the democratic process, put up with this lack of true secrecy and independence as long as there were no viable alternatives available.
The 1972 presidential election was my first opportunity to participate in the electoral process. At that time, the only way that I could vote was with the help of an election judge. This didn’t bother me too much—I was used to working with sighted readers. There were no alternatives available that would have given me the chance to mark my ballot independently and secretly. I voted this way for more than three decades.
The first nonvisually accessible systems for marking and casting ballots at the polls were developed because of the passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002. These systems had tactile keys and text-to-speech technology to provide a nonvisual interface to the ballot. Once the blind voter finished marking and checking the ballot, these systems would print a something which, for all intents and purposes, was the same ballot as that cast by other voters. I used an accessible voting machine during the 2004 presidential election to mark and cast my very first truly secret ballot. The personal freedom I felt after having done this was liberating.
Two years later, I went to the polls to vote in another election. I had forgotten how to use the voting machine. The equipment had changed anyway. I had to spend extra time learning how to use the new system before I could get down to the actual business of marking the ballot. I felt more than a little frustrated and annoyed with the whole experience. When I discussed this with my blind friends and colleagues, I heard that I was not the only blind person who experienced this. I had to familiarize myself with a system which I would use only once every one or two years.
The online voting systems available today—in particular, those systems which enable ballot marking and return via email or through a Web portal—offer blind voters the chance to receive, mark, review, and return our ballots using technology we can confidently and proficiently operate. The ability to return a ballot electronically is critical for blind voters who don’t have ready access to a printer—especially if travel to a polling center is difficult or impossible. This type of system enables blind voters to work with familiar software and hardware—something that is impossible using the accessible voting equipment at the polls.
Security pundits have said that returning ballots electronically is the least secure way to return marked ballots and is guaranteed to corrupt the voting process. Stories in the media give greater emphasis to this argument. They fail to point out that voters who are blind or who have print disabilities still deserve the ability to return ballots electronically, security concerns notwithstanding.
Many people (and some of the media) claim that online voting is equivalent to eliminating the paper ballot. This is not true. Usually when a ballot is received electronically, it is printed on the same kind of paper using the same format as the standard paper ballot received through other channels. During the counting process, a ballot submitted through an online system is indistinguishable from one sent in by mail or placed in a ballot box.
I do not quarrel with the idea that the voting process needs to be as secure as possible. Neither do I disagree that returning a ballot electronically is not without some security risk. Where I draw the line is when security experts and others tell us that blind voters and voters with print disabilities do not deserve the opportunity to return their ballots electronically on the theory that security concerns should supersede their right to vote privately and independently.
I fully understand that the electoral process implemented in this country is built on a foundation of trust. When voters place ballots into ballot boxes, or send their ballots in by mail, they trust that no disreputable individual will tear up their votes but, instead, will insert the paper ballot into the counting system so that it can be accurately processed. When ballots are submitted electronically, I understand that the electronic information in the ballot has a slim chance of being corrupted before it reaches its destination, but I am willing to take that risk in light of the greater accessibility that I enjoy by using the electronic ballot return process. Online voting is a technology that is still relatively new. Blind voters like me and voters with print disabilities appreciate having this capability. We can and will continue to advocate for this type of system in states where it doesn’t exist today. Gone are the days when technology did not exist for us to cast a private and truly secret ballot! Security should not supersede our right to cast a private and truly secret ballot.