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Concord agrees to provide accessible voting for the blind in local elections

  • Guy Woodland has been legally blind since birth and with age, his limited vision has only gotten worse. He lives with his wife at South Concord Meadows after retiring. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Guy Woodland has been legally blind since birth and with age, his limited vision has only gotten worse. He lives with his wife at South Concord Meadows after retiring. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 3/11/2019 4:51:24 PM

For years, Guy Woodland has struggled to feel equal to his fellow citizens.

Originally from Canada, Woodland, a legally blind Ward 7 resident, has been a United States citizen since 2007. Since then, he said he has voted in every election.

But it wasn’t until the 2017 Concord municipal elections that he was able to cast a ballot in secret. Before that, Woodland would have to ask someone else – sometimes his wife or a colleague, sometimes a poll worker he knew – to fill out a ballot for him and swear to keep his choices secret.

“It takes away your independence when there is no secrecy in your vote. You’re left with a feeling of, will my vote really count?” Woodland said Monday. “It’s a feeling of not having full participation, not being equal to everyone else who has the ballot.”

As part of a recent agreement between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice, reached five years after Woodland first complained, Concord has committed to provide accessible voting facilities for blind and visually impaired voters in future elections.

The DOJ maintains that by not providing Woodland with an accessible voting system that offered privacy and independence in local elections, the city violated Title II of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act.

As part of the agreement, the city will provide accessible voting system for voters who are blind or visually impaired in future city elections “unless furnishing the auxiliary aids and services would fundamentally alter the nature of voting or cause undue financial and administrative burdens,” according to the settlement dated Feb. 26.

The agreement only applies the city’s municipal elections, although the school district and the city choices appear on the same ballot, according to city officials. Federal and state elections have been required to be accessible under the Help America Vote Act since 2002.

In addition, the city will provide training to poll workers on the use of the accessible voting machines and will develop educational materials regarding the availability of the machines in city elections.

In a press release, the city says it has “resolved this matter without conflict and has not received any complaints regarding this important issue since 2015.”

“The City is proud to lead New Hampshire municipalities in addressing this worthy endeavor which strengthens our democracy,” the release says in part.

The agreement could eventually have big implications for how the rest of the state runs their local elections, said Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan.

New Hampshire has been working towards making its state and federal elections more accessible for the visually impaired. Scanlan said the state met HAVA’s initial requirements by providing voters with a phone/fax system.

Voters called a number and manually input their choices using the keypad. The ballot that would be faxed would look different than a typical ballot, Scanlan said, and “anyone looking at the fax would know it came off an accessible voting machine.”

With the development of the One4All voting system, which uses Samsung computer tablets, a special printer and a keyboard, visually impaired users were able to use the same ballots as everyone else.

Concord’s 2017 municipal election was the first time One4All was piloted in an election, Scanlan said, because of the city’s proximity to the Secretary of State offices.

The state lent out its accessible voting equipment to municipalities for the midterms elections. By November, paper ballots could be read by the Accuvote system, the only ballot-counting system approved for use in the state, eliminating the last difference between visually-impaired voters and their privacy, Scanlan said.

But even as the technology becomes more accessible, difficulties in adapting it to local municipal elections lie ahead, Scanlan said.

One problem is that they haven’t figured out yet how to adapt the One4All system to accommodate ballots that are longer than 14 inches. That would make voting in SB2 towns – which sometimes have dozens of questions – challenging, Scanlan said.

The second hurdle is getting municipalities to invest in the equipment. Scanlan said his office cannot continue to lend out its equipment because it was purchased with federal HAVA funds.

“We would have to be certain all devices come back, are clean and don’t contain any malware or vicious types of software,” Scanlan said.

Besides, “New Hampshire is always in election mode. There’s always a city or town or school district somewhere,” Scanlan continued. “Keeping track of all the equipment would be a significant project.”

A solution may not be far away. House Bill 539 would create a study committee to look at how to implement accessible voting across the state. It will be voted on by the House Municipal and County Government Committee next week.

The local impact

The agreement applies to the city’s municipal election in November, but city officials plan to make the upcoming Ward 4 special election to fill Byron Champlin’s seat more accessible.

For last week’s special election, Scanlan said his office allowed Concord to use its One4All system as a last test of the system.

Approximately $1,500 of the estimated expenses related to the June 4 special election in Ward 4 will be dedicated to One4All “system programming,” according to city clerk documents.

City Clerk Janice Bonenfant said the city had to pay for the programming for last week’s election, too. That cost didn’t appear in initial estimates for the March 5 special election because “It was sort of late-breaking that we were going to use that equipment” for the special election, she said.

She did not know when the city had requested to use the equipment prior to the election.

Woodland hopes municipalities invest in their own equipment soon.

“I feel equal when I go into the polling booth,” he said. “...The freedom of the right to vote, the most important thing is that it’s a secret ballot, that no longer someone else has to do for you.

“I regret that it’s taken 28 years for the entity to comply with the law, but I feel that I’m now truly a citizen with the freedom to vote in secret,” he said, referring to the ADA.

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