Nancy Remsen,; Burlington; August 11, 2005
Richard Erickson is legally blind. He can no longer read an election ballot. To vote at the polls, someone must read the ballot to him and he must say aloud his voting choices.
Soon, however, Vermont, in the U.S.A., will offer the 73-year-old Burlington resident -- and anyone else who is visually impaired or unable to mark a paper ballot -- the opportunity to vote using the key pad on a special telephone in the privacy of a voting booth. State officials estimate 3,000 Vermont residents are legally blind. They already have the option of voting early in their privacy of their homes.
Mr. Erickson has already tested the system. "It is great," he said. "I was surprised it was so simple."
Here's how the Vote-by-Phone system works. It requires a phone line and telephone at each polling place and a central server to take the calls. A blind voter checks in at the polls and is escorted to the voting booth. The poll worker dials the central computer, punches in his or her identification number and the identification number for the local ballot -- then hands the telephone to the voter and leaves the booth.
The voter receives instructions and makes selections among candidates listed by name and party affiliation. Most choices are made by punching the number "5" in the center of the telephone key pad. This key is often distinguishable from others by a raised bump.
The voter has many opportunities to verify the names of the candidates he or she has selected before punching a key that casts the ballot. There is even a chance to verify and scrap the ballot after casting it. A paper ballot is printed at the central server location and then scanned, and the voter may listen to selections marked on the paper ballot to double-check that they match the voter's choices.
"The thing I liked about it is at the end you had a chance to go back," Mr. Erickson said. "You could check again."
Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz has signed a four-year contract with IVS of Louisville, Ky., to purchase the Inspire Vote-by-Phone system so that people with disabilities will be able to vote independently and privately in any polling place in Vermont. The state will pay $525,000 for the system and software and $110,000 annually for maintenance, licensing and reprogramming.
The system meets the mandate of the federal Help America Vote Act, which ordered States to expand the accessibility of their polling places by 2006.
Ms. Markowitz said she shopped for an economical system that would also be simple to use. Many States have considered touch-screen computer systems, but that wouldn't mesh well with Vermont's paper ballot system of voting. She expects to offer grants to towns to pay for the phone lines and telephones with head sets and a special stylus for people who can't punch the phone buttons with their fingers. The state has received $16 million under the federal voting act to make improvements in its voting system.
Gail Hart, regional director of sales for IVS, noted another feature -- voters will be able to preview their ballots from home just as other voters are able to review sample ballots posted or published before an election.
Fred Jones, Director of the State Division of the Blind and Visually Impaired, predicts people with vision problems who aren't legally blind might choose to vote by phone. He notes, however, that many people with vision impairments can't drive, so transportation to the polls could remain a roadblock to widespread use of the new option.
Mr. Jones is blind and said he will take advantage of the new option when he votes next. He has always relied on his wife or his son to read the ballot to him. "The thought of being independent thrills me."