Voting may be a right for everyone, but for those with vision impairment, casting a ballot privately can be a challenge.
New Hampshire election officials are hoping to change that with the rollout of a new accessible voting system, called "one4all," during Tuesday's primary.
“I believe we’re one of the first if not the first state to fully adapt tablet-based technology," says David Morgan, president and CEO of the New Hampshire Association for the Blind.
“It’s a tablet-based system, so there’s a keyboard. There’s a voice entry which is not enabled at this point. And there’s a tablet that is both a touch screen, a voice output, and an enter button so that you can listen to the candidates be scrolled. As you hear the candidate you want, you can press enter, or later on for the fall, enter a voice command.”
Morgan says the system is designed for voters with a range of visual impairment, from low vision to those who are completely blind.
“If you’re an individual with low vision, you’ll be able to see the screen, or pinch it smaller or larger, so the characters get larger. If you’re fully blind, then you’ll hear the output, you’ll press the enter button, and actually hear it play the selection back at the end before it validates with a ballot coming out of the printer.”
Morgan was at a training session at Community Bridges in Concord on Friday, where those with vision impairment received training on how to use the new system.
Nancy Druke, vice president of program services for the New Hampshire Association for the Blind, trained some of the voters there.
“The poll worker is going to hit continue, then it’s going to start talking,” Druke tells a woman using the system. “And you have to be patient. As an example, the Republican ballot has 29 people on it. So when we get to that step, it’s going to read them one by one by one with a pause in between.”
Maggie Jespersen from Manchester was one of those with vision impairment who received training.
“I thought it was terrific. But the thing that needs to be fixed before next week is the voice. I have a hard time with certain pitches of voices. But the system is unbelievably exciting.”
Morgan says there's a big need for this type of system in the state.
“Since 2002, the Help America Vote act has committed to provide accessible and individual, private voting for all. There are 22,000 citizens in the state of New Hampshire, many of voting age, that have not had full access or privacy in the voting system.”
After the training, Morgan received feedback from some of those who used the system.
“I think what we’ve heard from the folks using the system already in the demonstration is that the quality of the voice could be improved. I think there’s another level of privacy the state should commit to, providing a fully independent and private vote."
This system will be available in every polling location in the state Tuesday, but it's only available for state and federal elections, not municipal and local elections.
"The other thing I’m hearing is the opportunity to vote beyond the state and federal elections, so that folks in their municipalities can vote in their local elections," Morgan said. "The path to that is not clear yet. I’m hearing some state commitment to working with local municipalities to create the opportunity, adopt this system. I think there’s great hope that will happen, but we haven’t heard a plan yet.”
“This is step one, but a critically important step. It’s really the first time I think this audience is seeing a fully-accessible system that’s beginning to serve their individual needs.”
Jeff Caron of Derry has been blind for six years. He says voting privately hasn't been easy.
“They used to have this other system, a phone/fax system. Every time I went there, nobody knew anything about it. It was broken. They didn’t know how to use it. Every single time, I had to have someone come in the booth with me because the equipment was failed. So of course I’m hoping this is going to be an upgrade from that.”
Guy Woodland of Concord has been visually impaired all of his adult life. He describes himself as a strong advocate for independent voting.
“I was disappointed to learn this morning that the new system is going to print out a ballot that has to be read manually, as well. My ultimate goal is to see the new touch-screen technology that is accessible for a person who is blind be able to print a ballot that looks exactly like a ballot a sighted person completes and be read and put into the same counting system so that you’re fully integrated as a voter. I’m 68. I just hope I live long enough to have a truly independent, private, secret ballot.”
Assistant Secretary of State Tom Manning says the new system will actually save the state money.
“The old system required us to pay a little bit less than $250,000 a year in licensing fees for the software that ran in, and then the telephone lines that we needed to connect to our data center would run us about $10,000 a month.”
This system has no software fees, he says.
“So basically, the hardware we had to purchase – the tablets, printers, headsets and keyboards – will pay for itself in a little over a year.”