Technology empowers visually impaired voters

January 09, 2008 6:00 AM

BARNSTABLE — Dorothy Nykiel stepped away from the polling machine set up at the Barnstable Unitarian Church satisfied with her choices: Strawberry ice cream, a Ferrari, Frank Sinatra and three-day weekends.  Nykiel, 88, who has limited vision and walks with the aid of a cane, took part in yesterday’s demonstration of new voting machines for the disabled.  The new machines, which feature large touch screens, Braille and earphones to listen to recorded content of the ballot, will be used during the Feb. 5 state primary.  Yesterday’s exercise was preparation for perhaps the most serious responsibility a citizen can undertake. It is also a right withheld — purposefully or not — from large segments of the country’s population in the past, including the disabled.  “This is like freedom,” June Wenberg, the founder of Sight Loss Services, Inc., a support organization for Cape Cod’s blind and visually impaired residents, said about the machine. The Barnstable contingent represented a small fraction of between 500 and 600 members of the group spread across the Cape’s 15 towns.

Barnstable Town Clerk Linda Hutchenrider and Wenberg arranged yesterday’s tutorial to introduce members to the AutoMARK Voter Assist Terminal. The machine first arrived on the Cape last year but few people knew about it and how to use it, Wenberg said.  After the controversial presidential election of George W. Bush in 2000, legislators passed a bill to insure voting accessibility for the disabled.  The Help America Vote Act of 2002 provided funds from the federal government for machines to replace the punch card system.  In Massachusetts, Secretary of State William Galvin tested new machines in elections in 2005 and 2006 before deciding on the AutoMARK, which will now be used statewide.  The state paid for the initial costs of the machines but after 2008 towns will have to pick up the roughly $1,000 cost of programming them for each election, Hutchenrider said.  One machine will be available at each polling place in every Cape town — 10 in Barnstable, 1,700 statewide.  Reviews at the church yesterday were mostly positive.

“This makes everything so much easier,” said Connie Crosby, 67, of Osterville. “It’s exciting to get back your privacy when you’re voting.”  That point was made repeatedly. Before the new machines, voters with impaired sight and other disabilities were forced to rely on friends and relatives for help while voting. Now they can do so on their own.  And despite concerns about fraud, the need to provide equal rights to people with disabilities is paramount, said Cathy Taylor, assistant director of Cape Organization for Rights of the Disabled. “They need to vote, too,” she said.  The latest census estimated about 40,000 disabled individuals on the Cape, Taylor said.  Many people may never realize their neighbor has a disability. “There are hidden disabilities,” she said.  Early machines tested on the Cape were not all up to par, Taylor said. Training for volunteers at the polling sites is critical, she said. But the balance between protection against abuses and the equal right to vote is fragile, she admitted.  “It’s tough because if you have five people who want to use that machine,” Taylor said. “Do you deny five people the right to vote like everybody else does?”  As for predictions, Wenberg said she knew who she wanted in the election but after Iowa she was not sure she would see it happen. “Hillary,” she said with a smile.

AutoMARK Voter Assist Terminal

  • Large touch screen
  • Braille lettering
  • Earphones used to listen to a recording of the content of the ballot
  • Adjustable volume and speed
  • Contrast adjustment
  • Sip and puff input for paraplegic voters
  • Print out of ballot used to cast vote

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