Allegheny County voters with disabilities - particularly those with visual difficulties -- got their first taste of the electronic voting machines that may appear at the polls this spring and finally offer them a truly secret vote.
For the blind and others with vision impairment, "Voting consists of going into a voting booth with somebody and hoping they vote the way they tell them to," says Downtown attorney Paul O'Hanlon of the Disabilities Law Project, who also co-chairs a city-county task force on disabilities. Legally, says O'Hanlon, these voters can take into their booth whomever they want but are often forced to take a polling place official whom they may not know. Some take in both a Democrat and a Republican, just to make sure their vote is accurate.
The new machines, which the county can purchase with federal help before Dec. 31 (see main feature, "Machine Politics," Oct. 12), were mandated by the feds partly to allow all those with disabilities to vote on their own.
"I don't even know" the parameters of the different problems that may be encountered by those with different disabilities, says O'Hanlon, who uses a wheelchair. He says he was pleased the county let him and other disability activists into the late-September demonstration of about half a dozen systems vying for statewide approval for purchase - after the activists lobbied to attend.
Rachel Freund, coordinator of public education for the Mental Health Association of Allegheny County, was also along for the county test. Freund says she expects voters to have difficulty voting the same way grocery shoppers have difficulty with the self-checkout apparatus. "There was the scanner that would scan your ballot, or you're touching the screen" to make voting choices, she says about the voting machines she tried out. "It's talking to you. More often than not, you have to call someone over to help you."
One of the machines had four races on one screen. "That was stupefying," Freund says.
"In Allegheny County, we are so used to that curtain flying open and making a big noise," she adds. Without such a flourish to the conclusion of the electronic vote, she fears, some people may end up being "fleeing voters": industry jargon for people who leave without pushing that last button to make their vote count.
"These machines didn't look bad," says Gene Barton, president of the Pennsylvania Council of the Blind, who attended the county demonstration. "Overall I was impressed with what I've seen. They're coming a long way in making progress." Most machines now speak for the blind, but Barton was particularly concerned about the lack of Braille options for those who are also deaf.
Ideally, says O'Hanlon, the county's eventual public demonstrations will include side-by-side demo machines for testing by people with the same type of disability but at varying levels: people with no vision, low vision, and age-related vision problems, for instance, or people with dexterity problems of various sorts, including difficulties with controlling motion, brain injuries or no use of their hands at all. Also of potential concern are those who may find the number of screens or screen instructions overwhelming.
Of course, about 25 percent of Allegheny Count polling places are still not accessible to wheelchairs, Barton points out. "I don't want the same thing to happen with machines. After 1964," and the Voting Rights Act, he says, "I'd like to be able to go into the poll next year and vote for myself and not have someone voting for me."