Ballot takes blind voter's privacy Unwelcome change: William Poole, who is blind, says new ballot technology in Baltimore County does not allow blind voters to cast votes secretly.

Campaign 1996

March 06, 1996|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

William Poole, blind since the age of 9, elected not to vote yesterday after deciding that a new technology used to cast ballots in Baltimore County could not protect the secrecy of his vote.

Election officials in Towson worked with Mr. Poole for nearly a half-hour on a computerized voting system to find a way for the 38-year-old unemployed actor to vote without jeopardizing his confidentiality. In the end, however, he couldn't be sure of not making a mistake on his own and did not want to tell someone his choices and have that person cast his vote for him.

"They should have consulted with blind people before this," Mr. Poole said. "An absentee ballot is not a reasonable alternative; it isolates blind people from the populace. Although I've tried to be cordial here, I'm angry. Here we are 3 1/2 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act, and I can't vote [in confidence] because blindness was not considered by a government institution."

At Mr. Poole's invitation, Robert J. Seidel Sr., president of the Baltimore County Election Board, said he would meet with officials from the local blind community to fix the problem by the general election in November.

Mr. Poole had difficulty with the computerized OPTEC-III Eagle voting system, which this year replaced the county's mechanical voting machines in which voters pulled levers to cast ballots.

With the old machines -- 1950s-era voting booths that were breaking down and presented more room to err in counting votes -- Mr. Poole would ask someone into the booth to read out the list of candidates' levers. He would memorize the sequence and then, with no one looking, pull the lever of the candidate of his choice.

The OPTEC system, using a paper ballot, requires a voter to draw a horizontal line alongside an arrow pointing to a candidate's name. The ballot then is fed into a computer, which reads and tallies the vote.

With the help of Mr. Seidel and Ellen Saval, an alternate on the election board, Mr. Poole tried eight times to draw a line next to TTC the candidates of his choice. Of those eight attempts, he said, he made three mistakes -- too many to convince him that his vote could be accurate and confidential.

Possible solutions, he said, would be a Braille keyboard or a computer that speaks to blind voters through headphones, allowing them to cast their vote when their candidate is mentioned.

Election officials said Mr. Poole's point was well taken.

"The real tragedy is that they didn't think to take care of this in advance. They totally overlooked blind people," said Mr. Poole, who described himself as "a reasonable man."

"Sighted people don't realize certain things" that make life impossible for the blind, he said.

The OPTEC system has been in use for a few years in Howard and Anne Arundel counties, where the blind must rely on someone to vote for them. No one has challenged the system in those counties, officials said.

"They bring someone in with them or we assign a judge from each party to help them," said Barbara W. Feaga, director of elections in Howard County. "Before we put the system in use we went to several different groups, including a small group of blind people, and they were accepting of it."

Although Mr. Poole was unwilling to let someone vote for him yesterday, he was less shy about going public with his feelings about the candidates.

"I would have protest voted for anybody but Clinton," he said. "Which is not to say I don't reserve the right to keep my vote a secret."

Pub Date: 3/06/96

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