I have always been very politically-minded. During the 2008 Presidential election, when I could vote for the first time, my dad commemorated the occasion by picking me up from college and driving me back to Rockford to our voting precinct. We both voted, and then celebrated this rite of passage with a dinner out. Voting and politics have become increasingly near and dear to my heart in terms of visual accessibility this election cycle, in part because of the work I do as a social worker for those with disabilities, and because of my own personal pride and advocacy as an individual who is legally blind.
I don’t remember if my visual impairment impacted the voting process for me that day in 2008. I don’t recall being aware of any kind of voting accommodations until I voted in the 2012 Presidential election 4 years later. Though I tried to use the AutoMARK (the machine which is supposed to ensure my Independence and privacy as a voter with a visual impairment), it jammed. Eventually, I had to rely on poll workers to read the ballot aloud to me.
This year, when I voted in the March primaries, the ballot jammed once, and I had to get assistance from one of the volunteers. The gentleman who helped me was very kind, though he admitted that he didn’t really know how to use the AutoMARK. He impressed by my knowledge and he thanked me for teaching him something new. “You’re the first person to use this today!” He exclaimed. “I am glad I got to see how it works!” At the time, I was proud that I could educate and advocate for voter accessibility, and even though I was surprised by the fact that I was the first and only individual to use the machine that day, I suppose I shouldn’t have been.
Ballot accessibility was required in 2002 by the Help America Vote Act, and AutoMARK is one example of the machines that are available to guarantee that accessibility. It is used statewide in 10 states (including Michigan) and in scattered counties within 19 other states. Recently, I did some research and found that even though the technology is available across the United States, not many voters with disabilities use it.
A 2014 survey from Marin County, California found that “Marin voters with disabilities prefer voting by mail by an overwhelming margin” and “a supermajority (76.4 percent) of the respondents said they had never voted on an accessible voting machine.”
I had never even considered sending in my ballot by mail. To me, the joy of voting comes from the unifying process – millions of Americans, all over the country, standing in lines and making our voices heard, all on one day. But my experience with the AutoMARK machine on this Election Day, made me reconsider this. Jammed not once, BUT TWICE. To make matters all the more hectic, when my ballot eventually printed, I was marked as voting for the exact OPPOSITE of what I had selected and reviewed. Twice. Eventually, they had to ask someone to explain the ballot to me, and I had to fill it out on my own, squinting at every selection.
So much for independence, accessibility and privacy.
We alerted the news media of these concerns, and I did a few interviews with WoodTV8 to talk about ballot issues and the AutoMARK machine. I know that there are plans to replace these machines in time for the mid-term elections, but I want to continue to raise awareness about the issue so that others who are visually impaired may speak about their experience when trying to use this technology, or perhaps even learn for the first time that this is available to them.
Did you use the AutoMARK when you voted in this year’s election? If you did, did you have similar troubles with the process? If you didn’t use the accessible machinery, how did you cast your vote? Is there a reason you chose not to use the machine? How did the voting process affect you as an individual with a visual impairment, or as someone who may have voted with a visually impaired family member or friend?