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Accessible Voting Succeeds in Florida

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Deanie Lowe is currently the Supervisor of Elections in Volusia County, Florida, and Doug Hall, who chairs the Access Committee of the Florida Council of the Blind, serves on the local elections advisory committee. In Canada, we have a similar need to expand the right for electors who are blind to vote independently, especially in municipal elections, and once again, this article points out that equipment installed to assist us will also assist other citizens. The following article is reprinted from the Braille Forum, Volume XL, No. 12, June 2002.

A fundamental right which we as adults of voting age expect is the ability to go to the polls on election day and cast a secret ballot. However, there are people with certain disabilities who have long been unable to enjoy this right, because voting equipment designed to make it possible for them to vote without assistance was not available. People who are blind, visually impaired, dyslexic and unable to read English have had to rely on the assistance of other people to cast their ballots. This so-called accommodation has caused personal embarrassment and always meant that someone other than the voter knows how his or her votes were cast.

Voters with print disabilities have generally been served in Volusia County and most other areas of the state of Florida in the following manner:

When a person registers to vote, he or she is asked to indicate on the application whether assistance with voting is needed. If an affirmative answer is given, the person's name is listed on the precinct register with an asterisk to indicate that she or he is approved to have assistance in the voting booth for marking the ballot. If a voter without an asterisk beside his or her name requests assistance at the polls, it is provided after the voter completes an affirmation form. A voter may be assisted by a friend or relative (other than the voter's employer, an agent of the employer or an officer or agent of his or her union) who has accompanied him or her to the polls. Alternatively, if a voter desires, he or she may request assistance from the poll workers. In the latter case, Florida law requires that two poll workers with differing party affiliations accompany the voter to the booth. One poll worker reads the ballot to the voter and marks the voter's choices, while the other worker observes, to be sure the ballot is being marked as the voter directs.

According to a report prepared by a joint committee of the Division of Blind Services and the Florida Association of Agencies Serving the Blind, there were approximately 10,000 voting-aged blind and visually impaired people living in Volusia County in 1999; the number has probably increased since that date and will continue to do so with our population growth and longer life expectancy. In addition to those, the National Institute for Literacy estimates that as many as one in four adults may be functionally illiterate and the Florida Medical Center Library estimates that about 15 percent of the population is dyslexic.

Equipment that makes it possible for people with print disabilities to vote independently has been developed and is being certified for sale by the Division of Elections in Florida. The equipment, which is used in conjunction with a touch screen voting unit, allows a voter to use a set of earphones to listen to instructions and the choices on the ballot, and then to use a small, hand-held key pad to indicate his or her selections.

The Volusia County Supervisor of Elections was eager to acquire this type of equipment, to meet the needs of voters with disabilities. Several months ago, visually impaired representatives from four consumer groups were approached to form a special task force to advise, encourage and promote accessible voting. On Thursday February 21, 2002, they and other advocates, most of whom were blind or visually impaired, joined the supervisor of elections to ask the County Council to make the voting process in Volusia independent, secret and verifiable for print impaired citizens. The council voted unanimously to purchase 194 accessible voting units, one for each polling place. In this way, all of the county's voters, regardless of ability or disability, will be able to vote independently.

As they cast their votes, members of the council said things like, "This is a no-brainer," and "Approving this is the right thing to do."

With this historic vote, Volusia becomes one of the relatively few counties in the state and nation to combine an existing optical scan system with an accessible touch-screen system to enable all citizens to exercise their right to cast, as Article VI, Section 1 of Florida's Constitution states, "direct and secret" votes.

The special task force, which helped Deanie Lowe to win approval of accessible voting in the county, will continue as an advisory body, assisting with accessibility and awareness concerns. One of its first challenges will be to encourage heretofore dependent and non-voters to go to their local polls to exercise their rights to vote secretly, independently, and verifiably with the new accessible system.