The Blind and Electronic Voting Technology: Ensuring Non-Visual Access to the Next Generation of Voting Systems

Background

Microchip and digital technology will undoubtedly change the way Americans vote. In the wake of the 2000 election, states and political subdivisions are scrambling to update their antiquated voting machines with electronic and computer-based voting systems. Arizona is already testing internet voting, and other states have purchased touch screen digital voting machines. Individual states develop and apply their own standards to approve or "certify" voting systems used in local jurisdictions. The needs of blind voters are rarely considered during this process. As a result, virtually all electronic voting technology is unusable by as many as eight million people who are blind or cannot see a print ballot.

Existing Law
With the enactment of the 1982 amendments to the Voting Rights Act, Congress showed an interest in how blind people vote by approving the Voter Assistance Provision. Prior to the establishment of this provision, election officials could insist on entering the polling booth with a blind voter to assist the individual in casting a ballot. Today, individuals with disabilities can vote using the assistance of whomever they choose. Voter assistance has been the only alternative for blind voters in the era of the paper ballot and mechanical voting machines. It is still a valid voting method. However, it does not allow blind people to cast a secret ballot or independently confirm their vote. Two years after the adoption of the voter's assistance provision, Congress enacted the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act. This Act requires states and political subdivisions to make available "aids" to assist with registration and voting in federal elections. The Act has not been amended since its enactment. Consequently, its provisions do not address today's electronic voting and non-visual access technology. Section 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act as amended in 1998, requires Federal departments and agencies to ensure that their electronic and information technology is accessible to individuals with disabilities. Several states have also enacted similar laws primarily focusing on non-visual access. However, neither these state laws nor Section 508 have been applied to electronic voting technologies. Recently Texas enacted specific legislation requiring all voting equipment to be accessible to individuals with disabilities.

Proposed Amendment
Congress should require non-visual access to electronic voting technology as a condition for the receipt of federal funds. Many members of Congress have introduced bills which seek to establish a federal grants program to modernize voting systems used in federal elections. The proposed non-visual access amendment would ensure that blind and visually impaired voters can use the next generation of electronic voting technology resulting from this legislation. Under the amendment, the federal department or agency administering the grants program would publish non-visual access standards for the development and procurement of electronic voting technology. Compliance with these standards would be one of the criteria for receipt of federal funds. Without this amendment, non-visual access, such as speech and Braille output, will be overlooked in the rush to use modern technology in voting.

Need for Legislation
According to the National Center on Policy Analysis, low voter turn out is primarily due to inconvenient voting procedures. Confirming this, an Ohio study pointed to - intimidating - voting methods as a significant reason why people don't vote. For blind people these factors are compounded by voting systems which are not only - inconvenient - but unusable. Inaccessible voting systems discourage blind voters from exercising the most fundamental right of citizenship - the right to vote.

Modern technologies (such as synthesized speech and speech activated software) allow electronic information to be accessed through visual and non-visual means. Using these technologies, blind people would be able to vote privately and independently. The Non-Visual-Access Amendment extends the convenience and benefits of electronic voting systems to sighted and blind voters alike. Any action taken during the 107th Congress to modernize voting systems will impact the way Americans vote for decades to come. Consequently, needs of blind voters must not be overlooked.

For Further Information Contact:
James McCarthy, Director of Governmental Affairs
National Federation of the Blind
200 East Wells Street
      at Jernigan Place
Baltimore, Maryland 21230
[email protected]
Phone: (410) 659-9314, ext. 2207