Saturday, May 15, 2004

Blind voters rip e-machines, say defects thwart goal of enfranchising sight-impaired

By Elise Ackerman, San Jose Mercury News, May 15, 2004


Disabled-rights groups have been some of the strongest supporters of electronic voting, but blind voters in Santa Clara County said the machines performed poorly and were anything but user-friendly in the March election.

``Very few of our members were able to vote privately, independently, despite Santa Clara County's supposed `accessible' touch screens,'' Dawn Wilcox, president of the Silicon Valley Council of the Blind, wrote in a letter to the registrar of voters after the March primary. ``I feel this is an unacceptable state of affairs.''


Wilcox said in an interview that she surveyed more than 50 members of her group after hearing anecdotal accounts of Election Day snafus. Only two members said the machines had functioned smoothly. About a dozen provided detailed descriptions of the problems they experienced using the audio technology that was supposed to guide them through the ballot and help them cast a vote in secret.

Four voters said the audio function did not appear to work at all. Others waited up to half an hour for poll workers to trouble-shoot the devices. Sam Chen, a retired college professor, said he was happy to finally hear an initial message, but then the machine balked. After struggling for an hour, Chen asked a poll worker to cast a ballot on his behalf. ``I wish I had voted on my own,'' he said.


Wilcox's survey of blind voters has roiled the disabled-rights community, which lobbied heavily for a federal law requiring every polling place in every state to provide at least one electronic voting machine equipped for disabled voters by 2006.


The report by the Silicon Valley Council of the Blind shows ``the gap between the advertised accessibility of these machines and the reality,'' said Will Doherty, an executive director of the Verified Voting Foundation, an advocacy group that supports Shelley's directive.


Noel Runyan, a blind voter and computer scientist who is an expert in designing accessible systems, said touch screens are a good idea in theory, but they need a thorough redesign to work in practice. He said the voting companies appeared to have ignored feedback they solicited from groups of blind voters as they were developing their systems.

Among the criticism provided by voters was poor sound quality, delayed response time and braille that was positioned so awkwardly it could only be read upside down. Chen, the college professor, also said the audio message required blind voters to press a yellow button. ``Yellow means nothing to me,'' Chen said.

``I personally want them to be decertified for this election,'' Runyan said. ``We need to make a strong statement that all these machines need to be redesigned on the user interface side. We've got a mistake here.''

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