Helping voters who have extraordinary abilities

On May 9, 2013, at a roundtable put on by the Election Assistance CommissionDana Chisnell gave the opening statement about the Accessible Voting Technology Initiative research that led to the Anywhere Ballot. This is a transcript. The video is available from the event page.

When Emma (not her real name) came into the lab, we had a nice chat while she got settled. She was about to try out marking a new kind of ballot on an iPad, and she was excited to tell me about her experience voting in the Presidential election. She remembered who she voted for and told me, even though I had said I didn’t want to know. But she couldn’t remember what the voting system was like that she had used to cast her ballot. It was January 2013. 3 years before, Emma had had a stroke. All of the outward signs of the stroke were gone. Her hand-eye coordination was fine. Her speech was clear. But she could not remember from page to page in the ballot how to actually mark her choice of candidate. I was devastated for her. She seemed nearly oblivious.

With Emma, we had butted up against the major challenge we all face in making voting accessible for all voters.

Right now, the way we treat accessibility in the polling place is as an accommodation. The Help America Vote Act helped us get this far by putting accessible systems in every polling place. When this happened more people could vote privately, independently, and securely than ever before. And this is a very good thing.

And while participation by voters with disabilities has increased, there are still serious obstacles. From a recent article by Whitney Quesenbery in the Information Technology and Disabilities Journal:

Accessibility within the polling place, finding the accessible voting system and getting set up to use it, can be a problem, though there are conflicting accounts. Numerous anecdotal accounts in blogs and other social media suggest that voters with disabilities often arrive at the polling place to find that the accessible voting system is not set up, or not working correctly. Election officials often report that few people use the accessible systems, but a 2008 survey by the National Federation of the Blind said that when blind voters went to the polling place, half (51%) were able to vote without assistance, and most (87%) said that the accessible system was set up and operating when they arrived (Chawalow et al, 2009). However, they conclude that,

Even with this very positive report card of the voting experience, some clear areas for improvement still exist, considering that one in ten who voted at the polls said an accessible voting machine was not available for them, and nearly one in five who did attempt to use an accessible voting machine said poll workers had problems setting up or activating the machine (especially activating the audio ballot, which was the way in which a great majority chose to use the machine).”  [emphasis mine]

Voting for people with disabilities is rarely comfortable or efficient. And it is very clearly different from how other voters vote. 

While the Voluntary Voting System Guidelines’ accessibility standards address many accommodations for people with vision, mobility, and dexterity issues, the scope of the VVSG is the voting system. But there’s a vast spectrum of needs when it comes to making voting private, independent, and secure for people with disabilities. Some of those needs are difficult to recognize for election officials — and often for the poll worker, and sometimes even for the voter. But technology and design are good enough 10 years later that there is no good reason for the accessible system to be segregated.

The projects you’re going to hear about today are all working in the spirit of making voting universally usable and accessible. They envision a world in which there isn’t a special accessible system, but instead, all voters in a polling place will use the same system.

These projects reach beyond the voting system to the ballot, to voting materials, and to polling places, stretching to address accessibility across the voting experience.

Collectively, the researchers here and our teams have spent hundreds of hours — maybe thousands — observing people like Emma and others with low literacy, mild cognitive impairments, and information processing issues. They’re regular people, some young and some old, they’re wounded warriors, they’re people you wouldn’t always be able to pick out of the crowd as “disabled.” And they’re people who want to vote.

We watched these ordinary people with extraordinary abilities who work around their limitations in their daily lives interact with what we made, and we were repeatedly humbled.

We knew going in that plain language in instructions should make voting easier for all voters, not just voters with disabilities. But what we learned in these projects went way beyond best practice. And we saw that including what Shaun Kane calls “plain interaction” makes a huge difference in whether voters can vote the way they intend. The results of the studies in the Accessible Voting Technology Initiative will make participating in elections easier, better, less frustrating and more inviting for voters of all abilities.

The research you’re about to hear about marks an exciting and wonderful point in design, usability, and accessibility in elections.

I’m proud of my part in working on the Anywhere Ballot with Kathryn Summers and Drew Davies.