Monday, October 18, 2010

Maine readies to use Accessible Voting System in November elections

From The Journal Tribune in Maine:

Privacy and independence are among the tenets of American voting, but neither were an option for Jim Phipps until 2006.

Phipps, who is blind, said he used to have his wife help him fill out a ballot, but in recent years he has used the state’s Accessible Voting System, which allows him to vote independently by telephone.

“I’ve been voting for decades and it’s a real step forward because it allows those who can’t read or fill out a ballot for whatever reason to do so without requiring help from staff at the polling place or a family member or friend,” he said.

Phipps, of Casco Bay, said the AVS is also an important piece of his work as the executive director of the Iris Network in Portland, which helps those with vision impairment live independently.

“Not everybody has someone in whom they have confidence, who they trust to read the ballot and record their preferences,” said. “It is an issue for a lot of people who want to vote independently.”

The state is making a renewed push this year to publicize the system amongst those who are unable to see, read or physically write on a ballot. About 4,000 copies of a voters’ guide to the AVS system were sent out early this month, mainly to disability advocacy groups.

“We felt that maybe voters weren’t as aware of it, and we’re trying to make sure people are aware this year,” said Julie Flynn, deputy secretary of state.

The Accessible Voting System was mandated by the federal government as part of the Help America Vote Act of 2002. Each state was required to submit an implementation plan and Maine chose the Inspire Vote-By-Phone system. Voters use a headset to hear the questions and the ballot choices and make their selection on the keypad or a large button switch. A sip and puff device with the proper jack can also be hooked up – for quadriplegics, for example – to use the AVS. A completed ballot is printed out at the end, via fax.

The total cost to initially equip all 600 voting locations was $1.5 million, paid for with federal funds, according to the state website. New Hampshire, Connecticut and Vermont all use the same system.

“It’s been a system that is cost-effective,” said Flynn, and “meshes well with Maine’s desire to have a paper ballot.”

The Inspire system helps not only the blind, she said, but also those with cognitive impairment, dexterity problems or limited reading skills.

“(Ward clerks) will help people vote, but the machine just makes it much more professional. It lets people do it with the most privacy and independence,” said Richard Langley, advocacy director of the Maine Disability Rights Center.

About 1,100 people used the Inspire system in the statewide November elections of 2006, said Flynn, since clerks were encouraged to try it out. According to statistics from the Secretary of State’s office, use of the AVS has been dropping in recent years. In Nov. 2007, 173 voters used the system, and 163 used it in November 2008. In November 2009, users dropped to 92. In the primaries this June, 47 Mainers used the AVS.

Locally, Sanford Town Clerk Claire Morrison said only two people have used the system since it came into use, and Carmen Lemieux, Biddeford city clerk, said that the AVS has only been used once in Biddeford.

Lemieux noted that the process can take up to an hour and voters usually need help navigating the audio system.

“It’s a cumbersome process,” she said.

Phipps acknowledged that many with vision impairment still prefer to vote absentee, but said the AVS system gives them the option to “get out on Election Day and exercise their right to vote.

“It does take some time, but it’s worth it,” he said. “It keeps the vote private, and that’s one of the fundamentals of the American election system.”

Avery Olmstead, of Bangor, said he made a point of using the AVS when it came out in 2006, as a form of solidarity with others who are disabled. Olmstead uses a wheelchair because he has cerebral palsy, but does have use of his hands. He was the first to file a complaint with the state when his polling place was unable to set him up on the AVS in 2008, but said he has not experienced further problems.

“It takes time, it can’t be done in two minutes, but I think it’s a really good system,” he said. “I haven’t used a paper ballot since, because the reasons why they brought (the AVS) in are so important. I personally don’t want just people with disabilities to use it – I want everyone to see the value of it.”

Flynn said she hears from town clerks who say they “don’t have anybody with a disability in town” or “nobody wanted to use it,” but she said, “It’s important, whether one person uses it or 100 or 1,000. It’s the right thing to do.

“I really came to appreciate it over the last few years, working with disability groups and having people say how important it was that it was the first time they were able to vote without help from a family member,” said Flynn. “It’s something we all take for granted, and now it gives voters who never had that the ability to vote privately.”

Voters can try the Inspire voting system over their own phone line, using the practice call-in line, which will not count as an actual vote. Call your municipal clerk or visit to find your ballot code, and then call (866) 491-8683 practice voting. The Inspire system is open to all voters on Election Day.