New voting machines a challenge for Michigan’s blind voters

Thanks and a hat tip to Joe H.

When millions of Michigan residents go to the polls in Tuesday’s primary election, many will be using new voting equipment for the first time.

Most probably won’t notice much difference.

But much of the new equipment — needed to upgrade aging voting machines around the state and paid for with $40 million in federal and state money — is expected to present challenges for blind voters. It’s estimated about 221,000 Michigan residents have a visual disability, based on a 2015 survey.

Until 2002, when the federal Help America Vote Act became law, most blind people had to tell their voting choices to a sighted person and trust that person to accurately mark their ballot for them.

For more than a decade, blind Michigan voters such as Fred Wurtzel have used an AutoMark Voter Assist Terminal, which had a touch screen and a keypad marked with Braille — among other features — to help blind voters cast secret ballots without having to ask for help.

New Dominion Voting Systems equipment — now in use in most Michigan counties, including Wayne and Ingham, but not Oakland or Macomb — also has voter assist terminals. But the keypads aren’t marked with Braille and some of the instructions blind voters receive over headphones reference buttons by what color they are, not where on the handset they are located.

That’s not helpful to someone who can’t see.

Wurtzel, who is second vice president of the National Federation of the Blind in Michigan, said it’s also not easy to figure out how to turn on a privacy screen that would keep others from seeing his ballot while he fills it out. And he found many of the verbal instructions — received through a headset — difficult to hear or otherwise confusing.

Casting a secret ballot “is a fundamental right that we all expect,” said Wurtzel. “Most everybody takes it for granted.”

When he first tried the new Dominion voting equipment, Wurtzel felt like he’d “been thrown back into second-class citizenship,” he said.

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