Voting is a fundamental right for all Americans, but sometimes accommodations must be made. Blind voters are a classic example of this, and the accommodation process in Talladega County is an example that could be followed in other jurisdictions as well.
According to Talladega County Probate Judge Billy Atkinson, blind voters in every precinct have the option of using an AutoMARK voting machine, which replaced Braille voting machines about four years ago.
Voters using an AutoMARK machine insert a regular paper ballot and put on a pair of headphones. The machine reads the names on the ballot aloud into the headphones, and the voter makes their selection using a Braille touchpad. The ballot is marked as indicated and then placed into the same machine to be counted as every other paper ballot.
“The Braille voting machines weighed around 2,000 pounds each and were difficult to set up,” Atkinson said. “Things moved very slowly, and we had to get AIDB to print up special Braille strips. And the votes had to be counted separately. These are much easier to use, and we’ve had a good response so far. A lot of people worked for several years on this, especially David Trott at the Industries for the Blind. Lynne Hanner and Terry Graham at (the Alabama Institutes for Deaf and Blind) worked very hard, and the college helped out, too.”
Blind voters, just like anyone else casting a ballot, can still ask for assistance from a poll worker, a friend or anyone else other than their employer or union representative, Atkinson said. Anyone assisting a voter will be required to sign in, however.
According to Trott, the transition to the new machines started when Alabama began to comply with the Help America Vote Act.
“When the law came down, it was basically a question of which machine we wanted to use. The AutoMARK was easy to use, and it is made by a company right here in Alabama, in Tuscaloosa. It’s stable, well made and does the job it’s supposed to.”
In addition to being bulky, the Braille machines were problematic in other ways as well, according to Trott. “There are a lot of people who are only partially blind, or have recently become blind, that don’t read Braille, and then there are also some blind people that are illiterate. These people didn’t have any choice but to ask for assistance. Now they can vote like everyone else.”_The AutoMARK is also available for sighted people who cannot read, he added.
Visually impaired poll workers are available at every polling place in the city of Talladega for the exclusive purpose of running the AutoMARKs, Trott said.
“The main purpose of these machines is to give total privacy,” he continued. “For example, if only one person used a Braille voting machine at a particular precinct, you know exactly how that person voted. Now, blind people’s ballots are counted with everybody else’s. Real or perceived, particularly on some legislative issues involving special needs, blind people who have had to ask for assistance or vote on Braille machines could feel they were being pressured to vote one way or the other. With this, no one can do that. It’s the exact same ballot going into the exact same counter. It essentially makes the blind a part of the normal voting population.”
The transition to the new system was very smooth thanks to a cooperative effort. “The cooperation between the cities, the county and AIDB just can’t be discounted,” he said. “Talladega County has done more than any other county I know of. And of course, (county election officer) Tom Warren was a big part of that, too.”
Now that the system is in place, Trott says the next step is educating potential blind voters.
“We’re four years out now, but we still don’t have as many blind people coming out to vote as we’d like to. I have to be careful how I phrase this, since you can’t actually teach anyone else ‘how’ to vote, but you can train them in how to use a ballot. So we use sample ballots with candidates like Susan B. Anthony and Helen Keller, and questions like whether or not you would support doing away with the IRS.”