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Accessible voting debuts in Concord for local race

  • Wendell Baglow, 89, votes with help from Havenwood director of programs Sue Pollock at the Havenwood Ward 9 polling place in Concord on Election Day, Nov. 7, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • A new electronic voting setup is seen inside a handicapped-accessible booth at Green Street Community Center in Concord on Election Day, Nov. 7, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Thursday, November 09, 2017

For many, Concord’s municipal election Tuesday was relatively ho-hum. But for the blind and visually impaired, it marked a milestone.

“This is the first time ever that there was an accessible voting system available in (a Concord race),” said Guy Woodland, a blind resident who voted at the West Street Ward House, the city’s Ward 7 polling location.

New Hampshire has been troubleshooting a new tablet-based form of voting for people with disabilities. The system has already been used in the state and federal primaries and the general election – but never in a local contest.

There have traditionally been two types of accommodations for the blind during elections. For state and federal elections, the state once relied one a phone and fax system. For municipal elections, the blind have had to tell their choices to a poll worker, sworn to secrecy, who filled out their ballot for them.

The tablet-based electronic system, called One4All, is an update on the phone-and-fax setup. And advocates, who argue that voting by relying on a poll worker to fill out your ballot isn’t adequately private and independent, have long wanted the same accommodations that are offered during state and federal contests to be available locally.

On Tuesday, Concord piloted that electronic program in four of 10 wards during its municipal race. The state has been trying to work out the kinks in the system, which allows blind and visually impaired voters to listen to the ballot on a headset. After voters complained the voice was terrible, the secretary of state’s office reprogrammed the system and partnered with Concord to try it out.

And on that front, Woodland said the effort was a success.

“The voice was very good – excellent. I had no problem at all,” he said.

Still, Woodland’s goal is to vote independently – and privately. The system Tuesday required blind voters to print out their voting choices on a nonstandard ballot, which can’t be read by optical scanners and have to be hand-counted separately.

“If you’re the only blind voter, your chance of a secret ballot is at risk,” Woodland said.

Dan Cloutier, the assistant secretary of state who oversees the department’s information technology projects, said that’s next on the docket.

The state has already successfully used a system where blind voters could use the headset and tablet system to print their choices directly on a standard, pre-printed ballot. But when it changed the voice, it had to switch browsers.

“That’s going to take another long time to figure out how this browser interfaces with this printer,” Cloutier said. The department is creating the system in house using open-source software called Prime III developed at the University of Florida.

There’s another wrinkle. Standard printers can only print onto ballots of a certain length – those capable of printing on longer pieces of paper are far more expensive.

“It’ll always be a limitation. A 14-inch ballot is as long as we can do,” he said.

The department’s goal is to have the headset-and-tablet system ready to go with the new voice, and able to mark votes on a standard ballot, ready to go for the state 2018 primary.

Woodland said he’s glad that progress is being made. But he’s impatient about how long it’s taken – and all the work that’s left to do.

He’s been fighting for years to make voting more accessible. Since 2015, the federal government has been investigating a complaint he filed against the city, alleging it was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. It’s still ongoing, he said. (Prior to this race, local elections in Concord used poll workers, sworn to secrecy, to fill out ballots for blind voters, a typical practice across the state.)

“The question has to be asked: Why did it take so long?” he said.

And for blind voters statewide, it might take some more time. The secretary of state’s office has said it will share the software they develop for free to municipalities for local races. But the hardware itself – the keypads, headsets and tablets – was purchased with federal money and can’t be deployed in local races, the secretary of state’s office believes. That means each municipality will have to decide whether to invest in the infrastructure.

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)