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Experts Warn About Voting by Disabled

As part of an ongoing effort to avert the voter confusion that marred the 2000 elections, the Election Assistance Commission presented a report to Congress last week that summarizes a plan for developing voluntary standards to encourage user-friendly voter systems.

The 97-page report, written by the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, includes 10 specific recommendations for developing guidelines on everything from better ballot design and voting-facility layout to uniform testing procedures that measure the “accessibility and usability” of voting equipment.

But the document also warned that there is a “lack of specific research on usability and accessibility” — particularly with regard to voters with disabilities — and added that until more applied research is done, there is “little basis upon which to include many detailed specifications.”

“Accessibility has been addressed by generic design standards that intended to remove barriers to access, but usability by persons with disabilities has not been addressed by research,” the report stated. “In fact, we know very little about users’ experiences with voting systems including those people with disabilities.”

The technical report further suggests that to address unaided use of voting machines by persons with disabilities, federal standards “must address the removal of physical and cognitive barriers to accessibility” and should outline unambiguous design requirements for vendors, “particularly in the area of external physical requirements.”

These design standards would address such issues as the spacing and pressure required to press buttons, the display angles for viewing screens and the distances a voter would need to reach to interact with the voting machine, the report stated. The report also suggests being as precise as possible in setting standards.

The report cited a discussion with a representative of the National Federation of the Blind who asked that blind voters be able to opt out of hearing a list of candidates read to them by the machine. For instance, the California recall ballot last year included some 100 names of candidates, which would have taken too long for many voters, potentially turning them off from voting at all.

The vendor replied that a no-reading option was technically possible, but that the machine had been programmed in such a way as to make it impossible. Given this example, the report argues in favor of allowing voters, rather than software programmers, to decide how to use the system’s capabilities.

EAC Chairman DeForest “Buster” Soaries said the EAC has adopted all 10 recommendations in the report but needs money to move forward. Soaries told Roll Call that he used the report’s findings to argue for $10 million in additional research money when he went before Congress Wednesday to discuss his agency’s 2005 budget.

In the short term, Election Day 2004 is growing ever closer, and some states are facing purchasing-decision deadlines for new products. For states in this category, the report’s authors suggest several steps that can be taken.

State election directors should ask vendors for standard usability-test reports and also ask a professional to evaluate the usability of the equipment with actual ballots, voters and poll workers — well before Election Day.

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