'Talking' voting machines, other equipment ensure voters with disabilities can cast ballots | St. Louis Public Radio

'Talking' voting machines, other equipment ensure voters with disabilities can cast ballots

Mar 14, 2016

Election officials in St. Louis and St. Louis County are reassuring the public that accommodations are in place so people with disabilities can easily vote in Tuesday's presidential primary.

Polling places in the area will have touch screens, magnifying glasses, wheelchair accessible spaces and other equipment available for voters with disabilities, said Mary Wheeler-Jones, Democratic director at the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners. Poll-workers in bipartisan teams will also be on hand to assist voters.

Curbside voting will also be available. When voters with disabilities arrive at a polling places they simply have to signal outside that they need assistance and a poll-worker will bring an optical scan ballot to them, Wheeler-Jones said. 

"We encourage all disabled voters in these two jurisdictions to go vote in person and use our equipment (at the polling places)," said Eric Fey, St. Louis County Board of Elections director. "They are there for that purpose."

Audio and large-print ballot voting machines, like the iVotronic system, are currently only required to be available during federal elections, not necessarily local ones.
Credit Stephanie Lecci | St. Louis Public Radio

Fey said blind or visually impaired voters can submit absentee ballots from home, bring an assistant with them to polling places, or "kind of as a last resort" have two poll-workers from opposite parties assist them.

But if voters with visual impairments want to be able to cast their ballots independently, there is another option: voting machines with large print screens and audio ballots.

Chris Gray, executive director for the Missouri Council of the Blind, said these "talking" machines allow for the secrecy in voting that was "the real idea behind our democracy and the founding fathers in creating the way we vote today."

Election officials on Monday demonstrated how the machines work. First, a poll-worker will help the voter enter a cartridge and submit the precinct number. Then the voter, donning headphones, will listen to an audio menu to decide whether they want a large-print ballot or have the machine speak the list of candidates.

"Welcome to the iVotronic voting system. To select a visual ballot, please touch the screen. To select an audio-assisted ballot, please press the diamond shaped button," said the program, which is used in the county. St. Louis city uses a similar machine that is provided by a different company.

At least one of these machines is required to be available at every polling place in the U.S. for federal elections. That is a mandate that came out of the Help America Vote Act in 2002, which also provided federal funding to buy them. Gray recalled the passage of the act as a "huge victory" that was also an emotional time for the blind community." 

When audio enabled and large print ballot voting machines were first rolled out across the country, it was an "emotional time for our community," said executive director of the Missouri Council of the Blind, Chris Gray.
Credit Stephanie Lecci | St. Louis Public Radio

"The movement of casting our own vote is still strong," he said. "We want to highlight the fact that people can go to the polls and vote independently."

But Gray said the talking machines are only required by law for federal elections, such as Tuesday's presidential primary. Many municipalities do not make them available during local elections, he said, such as the upcoming April 5 municipal voting in St. Louis.

"We believe the ADA guarantees the right to vote in all elections, but because that hasn't been directly and specifically mandated, it has been difficult for many local municipalities to step up to the plate to make this happen," he said.

Currently, two bills are before the Missouri legislature that would clarify the responsibility of local governments to make these machines available. Gray said House Bill 1379 has been introduced annually for three years, but has not gone further than the elections committee. 

"We're hoping this year that might change," he said. 

The Senate version, SB 1068, has been assigned to that chamber's elections committee and has had a hearing.

Representatives from the Saint Louis University Law School Clinic said neither version of the legislation includes providing funds to make the machines available, but they suggested the secretary of state could issue grants to do so. They also noted that logistics, including the number of municipalities in the area, may make it difficult to accomplish the legislation's goal.

Follow Stephanie on Twitter: @stephlecci