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New voting machines a challenge for Michigan's blind voters

By Paul Egan/Detroit Free Press (TNS) • Aug 7, 2018 at 10:00 AM

LANSING TWP. – When millions of Michigan residents go to the polls in today’s primary election, many will be using new voting equipment for the first time.

Most probably won't notice much difference.

But much of the new equipment — needed to upgrade aging voting machines around the stateand paid for with $40 million in federal and state money — is expected to present challenges for blind voters. It's estimated about 221,000 Michigan residents have a visual disability, based on a 2015 survey.

Until 2002, when the federal Help America Vote Act became law, most blind people had to tell their voting choices to a sighted person and trust that person to accurately mark their ballot for them.

For more than a decade, blind Michigan voters such as Fred Wurtzel have used an AutoMark Voter Assist Terminal, which had a touch screen and a keypad marked with Braille — among other features — to help blind voters cast secret ballots without having to ask for help.

New Dominion Voting Systems equipment — now in use in most Michigan counties, including Wayne and Ingham, but not Oakland or Macomb — also has voter assist terminals. But the keypads aren't marked with Braille and some of the instructions blind voters receive over headphones reference buttons by what color they are, not where on the handset they are located.

That's not helpful to someone who can't see.

Wurtzel, who is second vice president of the National Federation of the Blind in Michigan, said it's also not easy to figure out how to turn on a privacy screen that would keep others from seeing his ballot while he fills it out. And he found many of the verbal instructions — received through a headset — difficult to hear or otherwise confusing.

Casting a secret ballot "is a fundamental right that we all expect," said Wurtzel. "Most everybody takes it for granted."

When he first tried the new Dominion voting equipment, Wurtzel felt like he'd "been thrown back into second-class citizenship," he said.

He has since been able to experiment further with the new voter assist terminal, through the cooperation of Lansing Township Clerk Susan Aten. Wurtzel now believes he will be able to use the equipment to cast a secret ballot without assistance.

For blind people encountering the new equipment for the first time, "it's going to be a big challenge," Wurtzel said. Still, "I want to encourage everyone to do it, because unless we exercise our right to vote, we're not going to be taken seriously."

Michigan counties got to choose between three different types of new voting equipment — Dominion, Election Systems & Software (ES&S), or Hart InterCivic.

Wurtzel said he and about 100 other blind people got to try voter assist terminals from all three companies during a 2016 mock election the state staged in advance of the procurement process. He said the blind testers were unanimous in telling the state they preferred the ES&S equipment, which was selected by Macomb and fewer than a dozen other Michigan counties. The ES&S terminals were closest to the AutoMark system blind people were used to, he said.

The Hart InterCivic equipment — chosen by Oakland and about 10 other counties — was even harder to use than the Dominion equipment, Wurtzel said.

Dominion and Hart InterCivic did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Fred Woodhams, a spokesman for the Michigan Secretary of State's Office, said the devices from all three manufacturers are federally certified and compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act. Some communities began using the new equipment in 2017, he said.

"We have heard from some individuals with visual impairment who expressed concerns about the new devices that assist voters with disabilities," Woodhams said.

"Some of the people said they preferred the ES&S system over the devices from the two other vendors, or that they liked the old ES&S Automark device that was used statewide before the election equipment replacement."

Still, many people with other types of disabilities "give the new devices high marks," and prefer them to the equipment used in Michigan previously, he said. He cited quadriplegia and severe brain injuries as examples of other disabilities that could be better served by the new equipment.

State officials "greatly appreciate their feedback and will take their concerns into account as we work with the vendors to improve the devices," Woodhams said.

Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum said it's "beyond concerning" that blind voters have expressed valid concerns about the new equipment and she has been meeting with representatives of the blind community in recent months to make changes — some of which will require federal and state approval.

Though the ES&S equipment scored better than Dominion with respect to blind voters, Byrum said she'd had problems with the level of support ES&S provided for the former equipment and felt she needed to go with a different vendor.

Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown said Thursday she was not aware the Hart equipment had been ranked last of the three technologies by blind testers. Most Oakland communities used the new equipment in 2017 elections and "I have not had any complaints," she said.

"I hope we don't have any problems," Brown said. "I don't want anyone to feel uncomfortable voting."

Wurtzel said that even after getting through the voting process with the Dominion equipment, he is concerned the ballot he will turn in looks conspicuously different from those that sighted people will mark. Though it would mostly only become an issue in the event of a recount where ballots are checked by hand, "this is not a secret ballot because my ballot looks different from everyone else's," he said.

In Lansing Township, Aten said the new equipment is less than ideal for blind voters who want to vote in secret and without assistance — especially during an inevitable learning curve — but she and her staff will do what they can to try to make the change as seamless as possible.

Aten said she's instructing her election workers — who aren't blind — to use the voter assist terminals to vote so there will be more ballots that look similar to the one Wurtzel uses.

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