FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
2006 Election Marks a New Plateau of Equality for the Blind
Baltimore, Maryland (November 6, 2006): In all that has been said about the coming election, one largely overlooked fact is that the voting experience of the blind will be private for the first time in history.
James Gashel, Executive Director for Strategic initiatives at the National Federation of the Blind, commented, “I have been voting in every single election since 1968, and never once have I been able to cast a secret ballot in a general or presidential election. For me, voting was never a welcoming experience, but rather tension-filled and stressful, as I struggled with the numerous restrictions of being a blind voter; from the difficulty of finding a person to accompany me to the polling area to wondering how I would be treated upon arrival.”
Voting, like so many other interactions with the printed word in the life of the blind, required some assistance from a sighted person, or in some cases, several sighted people. Prior to a 1982 federal requirement that allowed the blind to take a trusted individual of their choosing into the voting booth, blind people who showed up at the polls unaccompanied by a family member or trusted friend had to be watched by at least three other people. A supposedly neutral poll worker was needed to mark the blind voter’s ballot, and one observer from each political party went behind the curtain as well to make sure the poll worker didn’t cheat. Eileen Rivera-Ley, of Baltimore, once commented about her time in the voting booth: “It’s like a party in there.” Obviously, the result of this ritual was that the blind voter’s ballot was never secret, and sometimes revealed to more than one person, none of whom the voter knew particularly well or had any reason to trust. And according to some blind voters, poll workers and partisan election monitors sometimes took the opportunity to make a last-minute effort to influence the blind voter’s decision. “You’re voting for who? Are you sure?”
The Help America Vote Act, enacted in 2002, mandates that each polling place in America have at least one voting device that a blind person can use without assistance. Most voting machines implement this requirement with an audio ballot, which reads each contest to the voter, who then makes choices by pushing buttons on a keypad instead of touching a screen or marking a paper ballot with a pencil.
The opportunity of every American to a secret ballot is not only a matter of individual privacy; it is one of the many ways to insulate voters from undue influence and to protect the entire election process from fraud. Gashel added, “on Tuesday, November 7, for the first time ever, I will proudly go to my polling place to cast my vote unaccompanied and unassisted, with the knowledge that a new plateau in equality for the blind has been reached.”