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Federal Investigation of Concord Raises Questions About Voting Accessibility in N.H.

Jack Rodolico
Guy Woodland stands outside a polling station after voting in Concord's municpal election, November 3, 2015.

The federal government is investigating the City of Concord for not providing accessible voting machines for people with certain disabilities during local elections. The city may have violated federal law.

Guy Woodland used his cane to find his way into a voting booth in Concord Tuesday morning. Woodland is blind.

"I have a non-valid driver’s license," he told a poll worker, "which you’re probably happy to know."

Here’s how Woodland would like to vote: on his own, with no help.

As it is though, he walks into the voting booth with a poll worker. Woodland dictates his voting choices, and the poll worker, who is sworn to secrecy, fills in the bubbles. That’s despite technology – sitting on a shelf in New Hampshire – that would allow Woodland to vote without any help.

Woodland says this was the third straight city election when he couldn’t vote independently.

"Up until now, blind persons have been provided assistance," says Woodland. "And really all we want is our independence and to have that private and confidential ballot."

The Department of Justice has honed in on Woodland’s complaint, and is investigating in New Hampshire this month. And while the federal probe is focused specifically on the capitol city, the case has implications for how the entire state handles elections.

A life started in a shoebox

Woodland was born in Nova Scotia in 1947.

"I was four pounds," he says. "The local doctor, because I was premature, put me into a shoebox to send me home with my mother and said, well, he’s probably only got a few days to live."

Woodland says his mother fed him with an eye dropper and kept him warm by putting him on the woodstove. At that time, lots of premature babies went blind when doctors gave them too much oxygen.

Woodland became an American citizen in 2007 – five years after the Help America Vote Act became federal law. That law gave states money to buy handicapped accessible voting machines. Polling stations across New Hampshire make those machines available during even numbered years – during state and federal elections. But in odd numbered years – when only New Hampshire’s 13 cities vote for mayors, city council and school boards – those machines don’t make it to polling places. The Secretary of State’s office says it’s too expensive to get them out, and in any event it’s not required by federal law.

Nashua City Clerk Patricia Piecuch says that’s a problem.

"I think all voters should be able to vote independently," says Piecuch.

So how does that work for a person who’s blind? Picture a clunky phone-fax machine that, Guy Woodland says, takes at least 20 minutes to work through an entire ballot and still makes him reliant on a poll worker for help. That’s the machine New Hampshire has used for nearly a decade.

"I can’t wait for people to use the new one because it’s really wicked cool," says Exeter town clerk Andrea Kohler, referring to a new generation of tablet voting machines that will be ready for the presidential primary this winter.

But this week - for those city elections - there were no accessible machines – no cool tablets, no clunky fax machines.

Cities take different approaches to help disabled voters during off-year elections. Nashua is using a sort of big magnifying lens to help the visually impaired, and city staff – sworn to secrecy – can assist in reading the ballot.

Conflicting federal laws?

None of that is really good enough, says Paula Hodges, director of the New Hampshire chapter of America Votes. She says all of the state’s neighbors make accessible equipment available for local elections.

"We know that the equipment is in the hands of the Secretary of State’s office," says Hodges. "It’s already been purchased and is made available in statewide, federal elections. I really don’t know why it’s not being made available for local elections."

So federal voting laws are less stringent about disabled access during local elections. But there may be a broader legal question here. In fact, the feds, in their investigation of Concord, cite possible violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act – a much more sweeping law.

NHPR brought Guy Woodland’s concern – that Concord, and, really, the state itself, is violating that law – to Assistant Secretary of State Tom Manning.

"We don’t view it that way," says Manning. "But I guess if somebody wanted to file a complaint and the court found that, I would be proven wrong."

The Concord City Clerk did not respond to request for interviews. And the Department of Justice decline to comment. But DOJ has been tracking down local voting problems that impact people with disabilities all over the country – in Virginia, Texas, even the Virgin Islands.

Guy Woodland hopes things change by the next local election. He says voting always makes him think back to when he was getting his U.S. citizenship.

"They continually told you that as a citizen the one privilege you really have is the ability to vote, and create change and be part of the world’s greatest democracy," he says.

Woodland says, for him, that won’t happen until he can vote without having to share a voting booth with someone.

Before joining NHPR in August 2014, Jack was a freelance writer and radio reporter. His work aired on NPR, BBC, Marketplace and 99% Invisible, and he wrote for the Christian Science Monitor and Northern Woodlands.
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