The Braille Monitor                                                                                               __May 1997

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Of Vision and Voting

by Jolene Boshart

From the Editor: Jolene Boshart is a member of the Lincoln Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Nebraska. This is what she writes:

Like many other blind people, I have voted in every election since I was eighteen (and that's a lot of elections!). Sometimes the voting went smoothly, and sometimes I was hassled about using a reader or getting privacy in the polling place. When the National Federation of the Blind finally secured the right of blind people to vote using the reader of our choice, it was a great victory in Nebraska. I thought at that time that we had gone as far as we could go in achieving equality at the polls.

However, I'm happy to say that I was mistaken. This time it was not blind people working to secure greater freedom. Our champion was Lancaster County Election Commissioner Patty Hansen, who is fully sighted. Patty had the idea; I had the expertise; together, we provided a vehicle which enabled blind citizens of Lancaster County to cast secret ballots for the first time.

It all began on January 1, 1995, when a new company specializing in Braille translation was born in Lincoln, Nebraska. I called it J. B. Translations, and for me, a lifetime user of Braille, it was a step of faith and a dream come true. Its main purpose is the provision of accurate, affordable Braille translation to both private and public customers. I also provide custom typing and consultation on ways to bring blind people into the first-class status we deserve. In the spring of 1996 a couple of my clients called and asked me if I was interested in getting the contract to produce Braille ballots for Lancaster County for the November, 1996, election. I was interested, of course, but didn't exactly know how to go about getting the information necessary to facilitate this project.

Then I received a call from Patty Hansen, the Lancaster County Election Commissioner, and we started talking about the ballots. I have to admit that at first my mind wasn't completely on the subject (I was preoccupied with the deadlines for a large contract), but all of a sudden Patty said something which caught my attention and held it. "There's no reason," she said, "why blind people shouldn't be able to vote by means of a secret ballot, just like everybody else. They're Nebraska voters, too."

Hold on, I thought, and suddenly the enthusiasm switched on. We talked a little more; and, much to my surprise, I didn't even have to think about how it could be done. Patty already had the answers.

The voting process, she said, would be simple enough. The election office would provide a template into which the ballot would be inserted. The template would have circles punched out in the appropriate spots beside the names of the different candidates and a long rectangle cut out for the names of write-in candidates. I would then prepare a Brailled booklet of instructions, along with the information on the ballot. In this manner it would be possible for blind people who read Braille to vote absolutely independently.

"Yes," I finally said, "this will work!"

The rest is history. In the November election this option was provided to Lancaster County voters. Unfortunately the word didn't get out very well, although we had some local news coverage. During that election two of us took advantage of the templates. At that time we offered only absentee ballots.

We have recently held the April primary election here in Lancaster County. This time we expanded the procedure so that people could vote either by absentee ballot or by going to the polling place. Also the instructions are now available on tape. This time, too, the advertising was better. Two local news stations covered the story as well as the local newspaper. We even had a small blurb in USA Today.

During the April election six voters took advantage of the process (most of them Federationists), and I have received very positive feedback from several of them. One side benefit occurred because many polling places are located in schools. When the article came out in the local newspaper, several teachers saw it and discussed the Braille ballots in their classrooms. Then later the children saw the voters (among them Christine Boone and Barbara Walker) using the Braille ballots. "It's a great way to educate people about using Braille," said Chris. Like Chris, Barbara votes in each election, but said about the Braille ballots, "Knowing that the Braille ballot would be there waiting for me and that I could do it completely by myself made this election just that much neater." Christine's comment was, "It was the coolest!"

To me voting has always been important and exciting. Equally exciting, though, was the thought that in Patty Hansen we had found someone with the vision to help us realize our dream of equality, security, and opportunity--someone willing to recognize us as first-class citizens who will never go back to the tenuous existence to which we were relegated for such a long time.