Two blind voters say privacy violated

Both had to speak their choices aloud because the county has no voting machines for the visually impaired. Officials say they'll try to do what they can to make the process easier - for the next election.

Published November 8, 2004

BROOKSVILLE - David Bearden says he was heckled as he left his Brooksville polling place Tuesday because he hadn't voted Republican - and a line of people knew it.

When Susan Cook tried to cast her ballot, a stranger approached her and started talking to her. Cook said she must not have looked like she was voting because people were listening to her repeat her choices.

Hernando County has no voting machines accessible to the visually impaired. And dozens of blind voters who went to polling places last week had to speak their choices aloud to poll workers who filled in ballots to be scanned by machines.

State law allows voters who are visually impaired either to bring someone to the polls to help them vote or to request a poll worker to help them vote at the polling place.

Bearden and Cook say their right to a secret ballot was violated because other voters waiting in line at small polling places heard their choices for each race.

"It was atrocious," said Cook, who voted at New Covenant Baptist Church in Brooksville. "What's the concept of a secret ballot if everybody knows how you voted?"

Bearden filed a verbal complaint with the state Division of Elections. He said a woman teased him about his vote as he and his guide dog left the polling place at Hillside Community Church, east of Brooksville.

County and state election officials, he said, shrugged and told him the next election will be different.

By January 2006, all counties nationwide must provide voting machines accessible to the blind, according to a 2002 federal law, which provided several billion dollars to help meet the mandate and upgrade voting systems in general.

But providing such machines is expensive. So expensive that the Duval County supervisor of elections has spent the past 10 months fighting a federal lawsuit that would have required accommodations for the blind in time for this year's election.

In September, a federal judge ordered Duval to make touch screen voting machines available for the blind in a case filed by the American Association of People with Disabilities, said the group's Washington, D.C., attorney, Ari Rothman.

But Duval appealed and was granted a stay from the lower judge's order until a hearing in January in federal appeals court.

"Basically, Duval County and Jacksonville have been trying to run the clock out on the implementation of accessible voting machines," Rothman said.

So blind voters in Duval, which uses the same optical scan ballot system used in Hernando, faced similar problems - strangers eavesdropping on their choices at the polls.

The cost to provide touch screen machines, which the state has certified in other counties to meet the needs of the visually impaired, in each of Hernando's 56 precincts could be $3,200 to $4,500 per machine, according to estimates by several private voting system manufacturers.

The bill could be $182,400to $256,500 for the county, which has qualified for about $200,000 from the federal government.

Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams will start planning to buy the machines early next year, County Administrator Gary Adams said.

"Annie has made a commitment that she wants to get these in by the next election," Adams said.

Williams was not available for comment Friday.

Bearden and other blind voters want a say in which system the county chooses.

"We want to make sure that we, as the consumer, get a say in what machines they pick," Bearden said. "Because the cheapest system may not, for example, be the most user-friendly."

Not all blind voters in the county agree on the need for the touch screen machines.

Ben Barnhart of Weeki Wachee said he and several other visually impaired voters in the county prefer to use absentee ballots in the comfort of their homes.

"I can put that on my magnification system I have at home, and I can study the amendments," Barnhart said. "That way I can vote by myself, and I can take my time."

Barnhart said he prefers an optical scan ballot system to the touch screen machines because of the paper trail available to track the ballots.

But he said he understands that some visually impaired people like to vote at their polling placesbecause it is more traditional.

Jennifer Liberto can be reached at 352 848-1434 or liberto@sptimes.com