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Blind voter's poll experience raises red flags, spurs apology  (FL)

JAMES MILLER    Daytona Beach News-Journal   09 February 2008

ORMOND BEACH First-time voter Emily Townsend went to her Ormond Beach polling place during the recent primary election correctly thinking her father should be allowed to help her mark her ballot, since she's legally blind. He wasn't.

The 18-year-old senior at Mainland High School also correctly assumed she shouldn't be offered advice on the merits of the property-tax amendment from a poll worker in the voting booth. She was.

"It's a learning experience," she said in an interview at her family's Ormond Beach home. "I won't let this happen again. I know what to expect now. You move on."

Some advocates for blind voters like Townsend say she's being generous.

They also think Townsend should have been verbally notified about the availability in the polling place of a touch-screen machine equipped with an audio function for blind voters a point on which Volusia County Supervisor of Elections Ann McFall disagrees.

But those advocates, McFall and some representatives from groups that monitor elections agree on one thing: Townsend's experience is the kind of thing that shouldn't happen, but does, as elections officials train thousands of temporary poll workers in a changing landscape of voting equipment and laws.

"There definitely is a lack of understanding of how do you best get this done with the increasingly complex polling place," said Dan Seligson, editor of Electionline.org, a nonpartisan project of the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Center on the States.

McFall said Friday she was working on an apology letter to the Townsends. But totally eliminating problems is next to impossible.

"An army of poll workers and 120,000 votes," McFall said. "Something's going to happen. You just never know what."

Volusia County used about 1,100 poll workers in the presidential primary election. Minimum training runs from 1 1/2 to five hours, based on the difficulty of the position.

From McFall's perspective, the most egregious mistake was offering voting advice Florida law says there should be no suggestion or interference in the voting booth.

Townsend said the poll worker told her, "I would vote 'yes,' if I were you."

Charlene Gagnier, who oversees poll worker training for McFall's office, said the poll worker said she told Townsend how the poll worker voted on the amendment. A second poll worker should have been present as a safeguard at that time, the law states. The Townsends say there was only one worker. Election officials say they're not sure.

Poll workers also misconstrued the rules for letting a voter get assistance at the polls from a person chosen by the voter, McFall said.

Townsend's father, Clay, said he was told he could not help but could fill out a form to help her at the next election.

He should have been allowed to help her that day after the two filled out a voter assistance form, local election officials say.

"The ball was just ped, and Emily's example is a very serious one," said Kathy Davis, president of the National Federation of the Blind in Florida.

Davis said she was equally concerned about the fact that poll workers did not tell Townsend she could use a touch-screen voting machine rather than marking a paper ballot.

McFall said she thinks her office followed the law, which the Legislature changed last year so only voters with disabilities can vote on touch-screens. She said a state Division of Elections official told elections supervisors at a summer conference they should let voters request the machines rather than offering them.

But Division of Elections spokesman Sterling Ivey said it had offered no advice, written or verbal, to implement that portion of the law.

McFall and Davis said they think the state should clear up the confusion with a formal interpretation.

Experiences like Townsend's aren't that uncommon here or elsewhere. Several Volusia voters reported similar mishaps at the polls during the primary election.

To minimize problems, officials have used various strategies, including more aggressively recruiting younger poll workers who may be more technologically savvy, Electionline.org editor Seligson said. Some prefer other strategies like the vote-by-mail system used in Oregon or voting "supercenters" that cut down on the number of poll workers.

Mary Wilson, president of the national League of Women Voters, said poll-worker training was one of five areas of election reform emphasized this year by her organization. One of the organization's recommendations is to make sure poll workers are retrained each year, regardless of whether they are veterans something McFall's office does.

"There are going to be a certain number of poll-worker errors, regardless of how good the training is. That's just human nature, if you will," Wilson said. "The goal is to cut down on those instances and certainly to minimize to the greatest extent possible any mishap that will disenfranchise any voter."

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