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Around the States

Oregon introduces unique accessible voting system PDF  | Print |  Email
By Garrett Schlein, electionline.org   
July 31, 2008
Thousands of residents able to vote independently for the first time

This article appeared in Election Weekly and is reposted here with permission.

For the majority of her adult life, Angel Hale was denied a right many Americans take for granted.

In 1986, Hale lost her sight and since then has been unable to cast a ballot without assistance.

All of that changed this May however, when Hale and thousands of other Oregonians with a wide range of disabilities were able to cast their ballots autonomously for the first time thanks to the implementation of Oregon’s unique Alternative Format Ballot (AFB).

“It was liberating,” Hale said by phone from her home in Oregon, the same place where she cast her independent ballot as part of the state’s vote-by-mail system.  

Hale, along with other voters with visual and/or manual dexterity impairments in the state now have the ability to cast ballots at home using a computer program that requires Web access and a printer to cast and verify ballots.

The program works in conjunction with alternative devices which assist disabled voters to understand and fill out ballots. Because of this feature the AFB can work with devices like screen readers, sip-puff devices, screen enlargers, Braille displays, switches, joysticks and other assistive technologies.

The user receives the AFB as an electronic document either through e-mail or a CD. Once completed, the voter prints out the AFB and sends it through the mail using the envelopes provided. Like the rest of the state’s absentee ballots, it is placed in a secrecy envelope which is then placed inside the signature envelope, both of which provide security and identification of the voter to officials.

 “AFBs are essentially a ballot in a different form which replaces paper. The ballot is processed in the same way as everyone else once sent by mail," said Gene Newton of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) Program office in Oregon.

Newton likened the process to voting with a pen or pencil.

For Hale, voting with the new system has been anything but typical.

“The process has been incredible,” Hale said. “Besides working on the pilot for the AFB this is my first time voting independently in my life.”

People with disabilities in Oregon account for 21 percent of the voting-age population, according to Census data from 2000. Nearly half — 48.5 percent — participated in the 2000 presidential election.

Oregon’s first statewide use of AFBs in the primaries of 2008 had few reported problems although Newton did point out that one complaint in during the May 2008 primary was due to a technical difficulty.

An individual did not have ActiveX, a set of technologies by Microsoft that enables interactive content for the Web, installed on their computer thus preventing them from running the AFB program properly.

Hale said her only minor grievance was a small glitch in the software in terms of a screen cursor bouncing when changing pages, but otherwise commented the system was “fabulous” and “extremely functional”.

Overall, 70 AFB’s were requested and 37 of them were returned in the May primary.

In order to prepare the public to use AFBs, a number of organizations and county officials have been publicizing educational programs and voting instructions.

Recently, the Oregon Disability Mega-Conference held an informational session on accessible voting which aimed to highlight the process of voting using a computer and other information about tools and equipment available to voters.

The Oregon Advocacy Center Web site provides links to contact county offices to request an AFB or more information and allows Oregonians to call for a training session in regards to voting by an Oregon Advocacy Center attorney.

For those without access to a home or public computer, each county is required to have a minimum of two Accessible Computer Stations (ACS).

ACS machines provide individuals the option of having a polling place brought to them or to be set up in a fully accessible public location.

For Hale, voting at home – just as almost every Oregonian does – provides the best alternative.

“This has been the best solution for people like me to at vote on my own in my own home, Hale said. “The AFB is an absolutely incredible piece of software.”
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