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Accommodations Lacking For Disabled Floridians Who Wish To Vote By Mail

A man holds what looks to be a rectangular gamepad. It has large arrow buttons on the sides and a large X button in the middle. There's a cord connecting the gamepad to a voting machine.
Robbie Gaffney
/
WFSU FM
Leon County Deputy Supervisor of Elections Chris Moore demos an audio-tactile interface. It allows voters who are visually impaired to navigate through their ballot and select candidates. While there are many accommodations for disabled Floridians at the polls, those same accommodations don't exist for Floridians who want to vote by mail. But a new option for disabled mail-in voters is being explored in five counties.

Florida doesn't have any accommodations for disabled Floridians who wish to vote by mail. If you're blind or can't use your arms, you'll need to get someone else to fill out your ballot. But in at least five counties, that's going to change.

When someone who is disabled shows up to vote in person, they can ask for accommodations. Leon County's Deputy Supervisor of Elections Chris Moore says the voting machine gets put in accessibility mode. Then, either the voter or a worker puts the ballot into the machine.

"At this point, if the voter is visually impaired, instructions will be given through the headphones," Moore says.

Once voters put on the headphones, they hear an automated voice confirming that they've chosen to use the audio-tactile interface or A.T.I.

It's a large square that looks like a game controller. Large arrow and X buttons allow the user to navigate through their ballot. The arrow buttons scroll through different candidates, whereas the X button selects the candidate. For those who are physically impaired, they can connect other aids into the controller. When the voter finishes their ballot, it gets printed out, and they're good to go.

A main holds the audio-tactile interface in his hands. It has large buttons that stick out, making it easier for those who are visually impaired to feel the buttons.
Robbie Gaffney
Moore demonstrates how to use the audio-tactile interface. Users put on headphones and listen to an automated voice that guides them through the ballot.

But when it comes to voting by mail, there are no accommodations. Disability Rights Florida's Tony DePalma says some disabled voters need to ask others to fill out their mail ballot.

"Not everyone lives with people who they can trust. Not everyone has a friendly neighbor who they can trust. Not everyone should be put in a position like that as a condition of exercising their right to vote," DePalma says.

But now, five Florida counties are doing a pilot program to test out the Omni Ballot System. It allows voters to complete their ballots on the computer. Democracy Live is the company that developed the system. It's CEO, and Founder Bryan Finney, says the system allows voters to cast their ballot independently.

"The idea is that a voter can log in to a secure portal. Everything that we have in terms of Omni Ballot is all hosted in a federally approved secure cloud environment. In this case, we happen to partner with AWS, which has been approved for use by all the major federal agencies to secure critical documents. In this case, the document happens to be a ballot," Finney says.

He explains filling out a ballot via the computer allows disabled voters to use their aids. Those who are visually impaired have screen readers. It reads text on a computer and plays it back for the listener. Those who are paralyzed or can't use their arms can use sip and puff devices or jelly switches. Voters can hit the jelly switches with their feet to navigate through a ballot.

A voting machine displays instructions detailing how to use an audio-tactile interface. It reads, "For instructions on using the A.T.I. press the red, X-shaped select button. To change the ballot zoom level, press the yellow right arrow. To change the ballot contrast, press the yellow, left arrow. To go back to the ballot press the blue, down arrow now. Press the help button again to get help from a poll worker."
Robbie Gaffney
Instructions for the audio-tactile interface are read out to the voter.

But after someone finishes their ballot on the Omni Ballot system, they still need to print it and mail it in or drop it off. DePalma says the method isn't truly accessible, but it's still a step in the right direction and provides privacy. He hopes the state will one day allow full electronic voting for disabled voters. Meaning, they would be able to submit their ballot online. Still, he acknowledges there are security concerns.

"In all policy discussions like this, I think what's always needed is a bigger table and more voices and more input," DePalma says.

DePalma encourages people concerned about elections security to join the larger conversation when it comes to voter accessibility. There's a virtual voter accessibility summit slated for October 6. For now, Orange, Miami-Dade, Pinellas, Volusia, and Nassau counties will be using the Omni Ballot System for the General Election.