Accessibility is critical on Election Day, officials say

Last modified: Friday, November 07, 2014
As New Hampshire voters head out to the polls today, so too will a team of inspectors from the attorney general’s office – checklists in hand – to make sure polling places are accessible and otherwise in compliance with state election laws.

Starting early in the morning and continuing throughout the day, about 30 inspectors will canvass the state’s voting locations to check whether, for example, there’s a clear path to the polls that would be accessible by someone who uses a wheelchair and adequate “Assistance in Voting” signage posted outside.

Meanwhile, about six attorneys will also be monitoring the attorney general’s Election Inquiry and Complaint Lines – 1-866-868-3703, or 1-866-VOTER03, and electionlaw@doj.nh.gov – from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The Disability Rights Center – NH can field questions or concerns as needed, Executive Director Richard Cohen said, and can be reached via phone at 1-800-834-1721.

It’s important for all voters, particularly those who rely on accessible voting systems or other assistance to cast their ballots, to understand their rights, Cohen said.

“Our message to folks is: You should vote as if your life depends on it, because it does,” Cohen said. People with disabilities “definitely need to exercise the right to vote, and they should be motivated to do it on their own. The rest of us need to make sure we make it as easy as possible on them.”

The Disability Rights Center has a guide to accessible polling places and related information at drcnh.org/Votingrights.pdf. Leading up to Election Day, Granite State Independent Living has also been working to educate voters who require assistance at the polls about their rights and responsibilities.

Several issues can stand in the way of voters with disabilities being able to fully exercise those rights, Cohen said – whether that’s encountering problems entering the polling location or encountering an election official who doesn’t understand that someone who requires extra assistance can be helped by a friend, family member or a poll worker. On the other hand, Cohen added, all voters are also entitled to privacy if requested at the voting booth.

Cohen said he’s also concerned about a potential “chilling effect” from New Hampshire’s new voter identification law in cases where residents with disabilities might lack proper forms of identification.

Voters must display one of several approved types of photo identification – which, according to the law, could include a driver’s license, passport, armed services identification card or a student identification card from approved institutions. If someone does not display an approved photo identification, they also have the option of completing a “challenged voter affidavit” or having their identity verified by a moderator, supervisor of the checklist or clerk, according to the law. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Manning said the office has not, to his knowledge, received complaints about people with disabilities being prohibited from voting because of the law’s requirements.

New machines

Most of New Hampshire’s accessible voting systems rely on old-school technology: a phone connected to a fax machine. Voters or their assistants, depending on whether such help is requested, can use the phone’s keypad to complete an “audio ballot,” according to instructions on the secretary of state’s website.

The ballots used in these fax machines typically differ in appearance from others used on Election Day, which Cohen said can also sometimes jeopardize a voter’s right to privacy. For this reason, the secretary of state’s office advises polling places to make sure more than one voter uses the accessible voting system – they recommend at least five do so, for good measure.

“A voter does not need to be disabled to use the equipment in a polling place,” according to the secretary of state’s website. “All voters are encouraged to use the voting equipment and many find them useful for various reasons.”

Today, some of the state’s polling places will be trying a different approach. A new accessible voting system will debut at Concord’s Ward 4 polling place – at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Concord, 55 Bradley St. – that uses software developed by a team at the University of Florida, called Prime III. This interface will also replace traditional fax-based voting systems in Nashua’s Wards 3 and 5, where it debuted during the primary elections, Manning said.

The software, according to a University of Florida press release, has been used at the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind, as well as in Oregon and Wisconsin.

In New Hampshire, the new systems are being used at the trio of polling places because of issues connecting the phone lines that are required to operate the traditional accessible voting systems. Manning said the state doesn’t have any formal plans to expand this new system statewide for future elections, but he said the new software worked well in Nashua on the primary and a future technological upgrade could be a possibility.

“Sooner or later those fax machines are going to outlive their usefulness,” he said, adding that it would be beneficial if New Hampshire could “get a system that’s self-contained and gives us a viable alternative.”

(Casey McDermott can be reached at 369-3306 or cmcdermott@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @caseymcdermott.)