At Long Last, a Secret Ballot for All

My friend Bill Kincaid is an eightysomething -- with wit and energy surpassing most fortysomethings I could name -- and he's worked the polls with his wife, Mildred, for decades of Cincinnati electi

May 17, 2006 at 2:06 pm

My friend Bill Kincaid is an eightysomething — with wit and energy surpassing most fortysomethings I could name — and he's worked the polls with his wife, Mildred, for decades of Cincinnati elections. Originally from Kentucky, he reminisced the other day about his earliest opportunities to cast a secret ballot.

At the polling place in the old blacksmith's shop was an inverted tub with a slot in the top. You marked an X on your paper ballot, folded it up and dropped it in the slot.

Simple, for sure — and it worked.

Now his native state has progressed to a new level of simplicity: voting electronically on state-of-the-art ballot machines. Period. Here in Ohio, on the other hand, you might say we've got some bizarre hybrid of that old tub and Kentucky's more modern approach.

Although I've been a proud American voter since the '70s, the May 2 election was an amazing milestone: At 5:30 p.m. that day I walked to my polling place and cast my ballot without help from another person for the first time in my life.

The ballot debacle in 2000 led to the Help America Vote Act, and disability rights groups seized the opportunity to bring the right of casting a secret ballot to everyone.

Voting used to pose problems of varying kinds for millions of voters. Many who used wheelchairs weren't able to get into the polls in the first place or, if they could, were often then unable to use the existing equipment. Some couldn't get close enough to the actual ballot to read it. Others, with limited hand function, couldn't punch the holes. Still others, with learning or visual disabilities, were unable to read the choices presented.

For people who are blind, the only solution was to trust another person to read the ballot and then trust that person further to make the desired selections or, as I did, to memorize the order of choices and punch them accordingly.

With the Help America Vote Act, however, came the mandate that no later than Jan. 1 every polling place would be accessible physically and have at least one accessible voting machine to offer voters with disabilities.

In Hamilton County, the accessible machine chosen was the Hart eSlate, a machine that offers a text-to-speech interface, enabling a voter to don headphones and listen to all selections and then make selections by pressing a button. The machines were also positioned at a height accessible to someone using a wheelchair and offered font size and color changes to render reading of the screen a more manageable task for those with learning or visual disabilities.

While dozens of Ohio voters with disabilities concur that the experience was indeed a thrilling one, the overall experience was far from what you might call a smashing success.

Like many who have voted in the same precinct for years, John Bush of College Hill said that the poll workers were delighted to see him — someone to test that cool new machine. Alas, he soon learned the machine was not functioning — or at least the poll worker didn't know how to get it going.

Voters in other precincts had similar experiences. In some locations, the machine had to be hunted down or, at best, taken out of the box and set up when the voter who needed it arrived.

Kitty Hevener of Price Hill, who is blind and has been an assistive technology trainer, said that when her machine locked up at start-up the poll worker was at a loss.

"They rejected my idea of just turning it off and then on again, so I then suggested calling the Board of Elections," Hevener said.

That call elicited the same suggestion — turn it off, then on again — and all was then well in that particular precinct.

In my experience, my poll workers were so enthralled by the whole concept that I could read the screen by listening to it that they read my ballot over my shoulder. I was finally able to cast my ballot independently — a remarkable feeling — but you couldn't say it was secret.

Eric Parks, ADA coordinator for Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell's office, assured me that most issues arose due to inadequate poll worker training.

Because the particular machines chosen in Hamilton County didn't seem to have a function for speeding up the speech, many voters found that the process took much longer than the old-fashioned way. Still, without exception, every person I found who voted independently for the first time — whether they had to wait for the machine to come out of the box, be reinitialized or set up, whether they cast the vote privately or had an audience of poll workers reading their "secret ballots" on the eSlate screen — said the experience was thrilling.

November could be an election like we've never known. For one thing, it could be an election where some 40 million eligible voters come out in droves because their right to a secret ballot is finally more than a dream.

But the poll workers need to know what they're doing. The machines need to work. Then there is the matter of those paper ballots that more "backward" states like Kentucky don't find necessary.

We do want Ohioans to vote, right?