New and improved ballot system being used for blind voters in N.H. this election

  • Nancy Druke, vice president of programing for Future In Sight, instructs Maggie Jesperson (left) and David Jenne on the new voting election system on Friday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • David Jenne of Tilton uses the new voting election system at the Future In Sight headquarters on Walker Street in Concord on Friday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Jeff Caron listens to the class on the new voting election systems at Future In Sight on Walker Street in Concord on Friday, September 7, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 9/7/2018 4:02:00 PM

The state will be rolling out tablet-based voting systems for New Hampshire’s sight-impaired voters at Tuesday’s election and that should make it easier for them to cast ballots privately and independently – but maybe not too quickly.

“You can read everything at once, but you can’t listen to everything at once,” explained Carol Holmes of Derry, who with her guide dog, Lyric, was part of a training session Friday on the new voting system. “People have to realize, it just takes us longer.”

The voting system is called One4All, a name chosen partly because it can be used by voters who are fully blind, visually handicapped or who have full sight. It uses Samsung computer tablets and a version of open source software called Prime III, developed at the University of Florida that New Hampshire has been testing and using in various forms since 2016, when we became the first state to certify it for voting machines.

The system is not perfect – most importantly, it cannot print onto a standard machine-readable ballot – but it is the latest step to let visually impaired people vote by themselves, rather than by telling a sighted person who fills in the ballot for them.

“When people learn about it, they are so surprised and excited to learn they can vote independently,” said Nancy Druke, vice president of program services for Future In Sight, formerly the New Hampshire Association for the Blind.

The system is being “fine-tuned” each election, Druke said. One difference this election is that a new synthetic voice has been developed to read out the instructions and ballot choices. Voters can use headphones for more privacy.

Druke ran Friday’s training session at the group’s Walker Street headquarters for a dozen voters, one of more than a dozen sessions that Future In Sight is holding around the state.

Among those who showed up was Jeff Caron of Hooksett along with his seeing-eye dog, Sister. Caron said he was in a wait-and-see mode.

“I’ve had bad experiences with all the systems they’ve had so far,” Caron said. “But I’m still going to try.”

There is no good data on how many New Hampshire voters require assistance due to visual impairment, Druke said. Extrapolation from census leads to estimates of about 30,000 blind and visually impaired people in the state.

The New Hampshire Secretary of State’s office, which oversees elections, will be providing one of the One4All systems for each of the state’s 337 polling places.

Visually impaired voters can use the tablet to enlarge the size of type on the ballot. For blind voters, the software reads through all the names on the ballot, cueing them to hit the enter key when their choice comes around. That takes time even for the most prepared of voters, especially during party primaries when multiple candidates exist, such as the 11 Democrats running in the 1st Congressional District.

Things slow down if blind voters want to write in a candidate. For each letter of the name, they have to listen for the alphabet read out and then whittle it down to the right letter.

Druke said the biggest drawback comes in printing the paper ballot. This system prints out the voters’ choices onto a blank sheet of paper that must be hand-counted by a polling place worker because it cannot be read by the Accuvote ballot-counting machines used by the majority of the state’s communities.

This reduces the blind voter’s privacy, especially in smaller polling places where only a couple of people use the system in any given election.

Druke said the state is working on upgrading the software so that the results can be printed onto a standard paper ballot that would be machine-counted along with everybody else’s ballot. It’s unclear if that can be done by the time of general election in November.

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)

David Brooks bio photo

David Brooks is a reporter and the writer of the sci/tech column Granite Geek and blog, as well as moderator of Science Cafe Concord events. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in mathematics he became a newspaperman, working in Virginia and Tennessee before spending 28 years at the Nashua Telegraph . He joined the Monitor in 2015.

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