Braille device lets blind vote without aid, guards secrecy Machine to be tested Tuesday in Balto. Co.

November 03, 1996|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

An experimental, Braille voting device will let blind voters cast secret ballots Tuesday, in Maryland's first attempt to provide a way for some of the state's 2,100 blind people to vote without human assistance.

If it works, the system -- developed after complaints from a blind voter about lack of privacy -- will be expanded across Maryland for 1998 state and local elections, said Gene Raynor, administrator of the State Administrative Board of Election Laws.

As of Tuesday, any blind Second Congressional District resident in Baltimore County can arrange to vote at the Towson precinct that uses the device by calling the Baltimore County Board of Elections at 887-5700.

"We're moving in the right direction," said Raynor, whose office does not keep records on the number of blind voters in Maryland. "These people deserve the right to vote in secrecy."

But advocates for the blind say they want to make sure the state's efforts don't end there, noting that the majority of blind people don't read Braille.

"The issue is much larger," said Deborah Grubb, President of the American Council of the Blind of Maryland.

The device is a clear plastic folder that encloses the paper ballot, covering the printed words with Braille. A wooden frame holds everything in place, and slots are provided over spaces for pencil marks. Separate Braille instructions also are provided.

Under the old mechanical lever voting system, an election judge or someone selected by the voter would enter the curtained booth with the blind person, read the ballot to the voter and help the voter find the levers.

But Baltimore County's OPTECH III Eagle computer-aided voting system, which was adopted with the March primary election, doesn't use a fully enclosed booth, just a partly shielded writing platform on which the voter fills out a paper ballot.

In the primary, William Poole, a Towson resident who has been blind since he was 9, would not vote using the system, used in 14 Maryland counties, because it afforded him no way to mark his ballot in secret.

"Initially, we were preparing to sue," said Poole, an unemployed actor who noted that Baltimore County had not conducted a self-assessment before adopting the system, as required by the American Disabilities Act.

Suits have been filed in Texas and Michigan federal courts on behalf of blind people to allow them to vote in privacy, said Paul W. Grace, Poole's pro-bono lawyer.

"None of the voting systems currently certified for use in Maryland is designed to permit voters who are blind or visually impaired to vote in secret," Grace said.

The device resulted from a series of meetings among Poole, lawyers representing him from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Maryland Disability Law Center, and state and county election board officials.

Jim Corey, a state information specialist, who helped devise the plastic system, says it is "a seat-of-your-pants solution" to satisfy Poole's specific objections. It took about 70 hours of work by a four-person team to conceive and perfect. Poole tested the device last week and said it works. He praised Raynor's attitude and efforts.

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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