In local N.H. elections, visually impaired voters cannot cast their ballot privately

Last modified: 10/31/2015 12:24:40 AM
Voters in Concord will cast ballots Tuesday for the city’s newest leaders. Most will do it with complete confidentiality.

But not Guy Woodland.

Woodland, a retired senior vice president at the New Hampshire Association for the Blind, will instead be accompanied by a friend or relative, someone who will be able to read him the ballot and mark down his corresponding selections. Or he could forego the process altogether, as he did last time, in 2013, out of quiet protest to an issue he feels gets little if any attention: the lack of vision-assisted voting machines at municipal elections.

For nearly a decade and in accordance with federal law, the state has provided legally blind voters like Woodland with the means to vote independently and with relative secrecy (the distinctly-shaped ballots are noticeable at polling stations and must still be hand-counted). To date, though, the system is only offered during state and federal elections, leaving visually impaired voters with no private options in local referendums.

That’s a problem, according to advocates, who are quick to note that voters with disabilities have just as much of a right to a confidential ballot as everyone else.

“The fact is (federal law) requires that people with disabilities have access to an accessible voting machine, that allows them to vote privately and independently like everybody else,” said Cindy Robertson, a staff attorney at the Disability Rights Center in Concord. Today, she said, “it’s not being done. It hasn’t been being done.”

But whether Woodland’s legal rights are being violated is a question yet to be answered. In February, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it was opening an inquiry, and Robertson said the department told her office it was planning to send an investigator to New Hampshire sometime next month. The department, through a spokesman, declined to comment for this story.

Woodland filed a complaint soon after the 2013 election, arguing that the city had not made every reasonable accommodation for him, as established by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. In March of last year, Robertson’s office wrote Secretary of State Bill Gardner, asserting in a letter that the failure to provide accessible machines at municipal elections “forces blind and visually impaired voters to reveal political opinions that other voters are not required to disclose.”

Concord, meanwhile, began looking into what it would take to get the machines at this year’s election. City Clerk Janice Bonenfant contacted Gardner’s office and was told it could accommodate the city for a cost of $100 per ward, or $1,000 total. City councilors approved the expense, and the problem seemed solved.

But around the end of August, Bonenfant said, the offer was abruptly rescinded.

There are two problems, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Manning explained. First, the state is in transition from a phone-based assisted voting system to one that uses electronic tablets. The new system won’t roll out until the presidential primaries next spring, and the old system is no longer available, because the company that helped provide it is no longer under state contract. The city could contract with a private outfitter itself, but Bonenfant said there wasn’t enough time to look into it for this election. She estimated that about five people would use the service.

The second issue, Manning said, is that cities and towns use different ballots. To adopt the system, new or old, for each individual municipality would require more money and staff than is presently available, he said.

“We’re just not in a position to do that right now,” Manning said.

Both he and Bonenfant said every available accommodation is being made for voters with disabilities.

“Absolutely,” Bonenfant said. “We are fully compliant with ADA election laws.”

Robertson, though, said the state has had years to accommodate diverse ballots, and Woodland questioned whether the city has indeed done all it can; a Canadian citizen by birth, this is his third municipal election without an accessible machine.

The city “has enough money to buy a stagecoach but is not willing to put in place an accessible voting system for persons who are blind,” he said.

Concord isn’t alone, according to Rep. Frank Heffron, an Exeter Democrat, who said a blind constituent there has raised the same concern with him and city officials.

“We feel we’ve come a long ways at the state and federal elections,” Woodland said. “We’re just asking local elections to look at this in a responsible way.”

After all, he added, that was the intent of the ADA.

“They’ve really had 25 years to do something.” Woodland said.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319, or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)


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