Spend time in any foreign country, and you come back with a profound appreciation for America. Personally, after a year in Italy, I will never look at wireless internet or consistent hot water or dryers the same way. I have a friend in Japan right now, and from what I’ve heard, he really misses central heating. One thing I did not expect, when I went to Europe, was how much I would learn to appreciate voting. I am still thoroughly confused by how the Italian political system works, but based on conversations with my students and friends, Italians don’t vote for the specific candidates. They vote for the party, and there are a lot of parties. I taught a few lessons on American elections, and my students were always amazed and envious of the power Americans have in government. But one thing I was always sure to tell my students is that not everyone has the same power. I, as a person with a disability, have never been able to exercise my right to vote independently and privately before.
Almost from the moment our country was founded, America has expanded and then expanded again the electorate, creating laws that gave one disenfranchised group after another the right to vote: first the poor, then African Americans and other racial minorities and women. In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which guarantees the right to vote accessibly, privately, and independently to all people with disabilities. In 2009, I turned eighteen and registered to vote, and I have never been able to vote like everybody else. Twice, using an absentee ballot at school, I had to rely on friends to fill in my ballot for me. I trusted them, but at the same time, I couldn’t see who they were really voting for. The absentee ballots were far from accessible, far from independent, and far from private. When I signed the envelope afterwords, and I had to choose the reason why I was using an absentee ballot, I accidentally signed over the part that said “Because I am blind and require assistance.” The one time I voted in person, during the 2012 New Hampshire primary, when I arrived at my polling place and asked how I could vote independently, I was greeted with blank stares. I had to have assistance in the voting booth, and when I left, and the people conducting the exit polls asked who I’d voted for, I responded “I honestly don’t know.” (Because I’m that person.) Just two weeks ago, I learned that there was an accessible voting system available at the time, something called a phone/fax system. I’ve heard a lot of horror stories about it, but I never got to try it. I didn’t even know it existed.
But this year is going to be different. At the Disability Rights Center, I’ve been working with the voting accessibility team for the last several weeks on ways to make this election as accessible as possible and ways to promote that accessibility to the public. New Hampshire has just rolled out a new, accessible voting machine. It uses a tablet, a set of headphones, a keyboard, and a printer. An automated voice will read the choices to me, and when I hear the candidate I want to vote for, I press enter, and it prints out my ballot. It’s all been very exciting. It’s the first project I’ve worked on at the DRC that I’m seeing to fruition.
This morning, I went to the New Hampshire Association for the Blind and tried out one of the machines before the primary, and it definitely has some issues that need to be worked out. First of all, I have never heard a speech synthesizer so awful. I understand the state is working with free, open-source software, but when the speech is not lined up in each ear of the headpiece (so it sounds like it’s echoing itself) and when candidates names are pronounced so badly I’m not sure who they are, we have a problem. I’ve worked with all sorts of speech synthesizers all my life, and some mispronunciation is to be expected. I accept that. No computer can pronounce my name correctly if I don’t add it to the pronunciation dictionary, after all, so it only seems fair. But some of these mispronunciations made no sense. How we get “Burn Sanders” from Bernie Sanders and “Carl Fiorine” from Carly Fiorina (to give just two examples) is beyond me.
Another issue is that it is possible to vote for two candidates by accident, especially if you’re rushing. And after listening to almost 30 terribly mispronounced names, who wouldn’t want to rush? (Get this voice out of my head! Seriously, it’s like nails on a chalkboard! Make it stop!) But if you do accidentally pick two candidates, and you also happen to be blind, how are you going to know once your ballot gets printed? You’re not, and your vote won’t be counted. Which brings me to the ballots themselves, which are printed on regular printer paper rather than the cardboard used for everyone else’s ballots. Ballots from the accessible machine are easily distinguishable from other ballots, and they have to be counted by hand rather than the automatic ballot counter. If one voter uses the accessible voting machine, the election moderator is also supposed to use the accessible voting machine when they vote to create privacy for the person who used the machine, so it’s not too bad, but it’s still different. Finally, this machine is designed to be accessible to all people with disabilities. It includes a way of voting with voice rather than with the keyboard or touch screen, but due to some technical issues with the microphone being too sensitive, that isn’t working yet.
There’s a lot to work on with these machines, obviously, but I want to stress how great this really is. No, it’s not perfect, but it’s a huge stride forward for New Hampshire voters with disabilities. For me, if everything goes according to plan, tomorrow will be the first time I am able to vote as if I were sighted. And there’s a lot of potential for this technology, once all the bugs are worked out.
A few weeks ago, a friend linked me to a cartoon (and then described it to me because there was no alt text). In the cartoon, a group of kids are waiting in front of a school while a man shovels snow off the stairs up to the entrance. Among the waiting students is a girl in a wheelchair. She asks the man if he will shovel the ramp. The man says he will, as soon as he finishes with the stairs so the other students can go inside. He tells the girl in the wheelchair to be patient, but the girl says, “You know, if you shovel the ramp, then we can all go inside.”
This struck me as so simple and so poignant, yet at the same time so obvious that most people would overlook it as a solution. People with disabilities don’t want “separate but equal.” We want inclusion. This is the eventuality I hope for for this new voting machine. There shouldn’t be two systems—one for the able-bodied and one for the disabled. There should be one system that will work for everyone. That is obviously the intent behind this new technology: the system is called “one4all,” after all, and anyone can vote using the tablet.
So I’ll take the glitches, with the promise that things will be improved. Of course, if things aren’t improved, I will get cranky. But tomorrow, I’m going to vote!
Now I just need to figure out who to vote for.