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Essex Produces Audio Ballots to Keep Blind Voters Informed

Editor's Note: This article appeared in the Fairfield Record on October 8, 1999.

FAIRFIELD Essex County officials on Thursday unveiled a first-ever audio tape of a sample ballot for the visually impaired, assisted by someone who has experienced the frustration they want to alleviate.

Mary Swendeman, who is blind, always had to wait until she arrived at the polls on Election Day to learn the issues and the names on the ballot.

You don't know the issues ahead of time, so you don't have time to think about it, she said. The new sample election ballots on audio tape will fill that information vacuum, giving her the low-down before she gets to the polls to vote.

Essex County Clerk Patrick J. McNally introduced the free, audio taped ballot as probably the first program of its kind in the nation.

The tape, produced by Frank Scafidi of GSV Productions in Fairfield, lists candidates in all local and county races, as well as the federal and state seats up for grabs representing Essex County.

Swendeman said that until now, visually impaired voters have had to trust unfamiliar sources for information. The poll workers are there, but I don't know them, Swendeman said. I am already uncomfortable being there, then I have to worry about the pollers trying to influence me.

When she made it to the voting booth with a reader provided by the county Office for the Disabled, she found listening to the list of seats, candidates, and issues time-consuming. I would ask myself: Is this worth it? Swendeman said. She decided that it was, because I'm allowed to be there as much as anybody else.

Deputy Clerk Arthur L. Wright said the audiocassettes are overdue. Its a need for citizens to be informed, he said.

After being given the idea by a radio executive who was an advocate for the blind, McNally contacted GSV about a year ago to produce the tape.

The result is a tone-indexed audiocassette that provides all of the information listed on a printed sample ballot. Listeners can find a particular community or office by fast-forwarding or rewinding the tape and listening for the tone indexes. The tape is organised as follows: public questions, legislative district races, countywide elections, and Essex town elections, listed alphabetically. Each tape is labelled in print and Braille.

Swendeman listened to the new sample ballot and said it is easy to use. Its something we use with talking books, anyway, she said. Its a format were accustomed to. She said the tapes give her a fighting chance during elections. As a taxpayer, I can now say, I know what this is about. Voters can request the sample ballot audio tapes by calling the Essex County Clerks Office at (973) 621-4923 (election unit) or visiting the offices Web site, at http://www.essexclerk.com. The free cassette will be mailed to homes.

To date, the most common way of aiding physically handicapped voters has been to deliver absentee ballots to their homes.

McNally said prior attempts to inform visually handicapped voters included proposed legislation for ballots in Braille, but the bills were not passed. He estimated that the state has about 140,000 visually impaired residents, including children.

Sample ballots for people with other physical impairments have not been explored, McNally said.

He said he would like to see the tape available at public facilities, such as libraries, for greater accessibility.

Scafidi, who has produced tapes for NJ Transit to provide bus and train information for visually impaired commuters, said he and McNally will monitor feedback so they can improve the program.

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