Voting Experience in November 2004 Election
In Santa Clara County California - Using Sequoia Voting Machines

by Noel Runyan

My own voting experience started, at 7 in the morning, with a 1 hour wait in the cold, outside our Sunnyoaks fire station.

I had to keep my braille reading fingers in my pocket to make sure they would be warm enough for reading my braille notes. Even so, the polling place was so cold that my fingers were having a lot of trouble reading braille near the end of my time at the voting machine.

After signing in, and getting my voter smart card, I had to wait 8 minutes for them to reboot the audio voting machine. They had been using it for touch screen voting, as there was a very long line and just 5 voting machines for our combined 2-precinct site.

I had my braille notes in a hard-back notebook, so I could read my notes with the notebook on my lap. Thankfully someone found me a chair to sit down while voting. Otherwise, I would have had to tilt the display down flat and put my notes and keypad on top of the back side of the display. Since we were in very tight quarters, it was a good thing that the audio terminal was in a corner, at the end of the line of machines. This meant that I didn't have to worry about my chair blocking traffic in the very tight aisle.

I decided to use paper braille notes, rather than my talking laptop computer or a paperless braille notetaker, because I had heard that people would not be allowed to use computers and other electronic equipment in the polling place. For the next election, we need to address the issue of an exception for accessible note taking devices.

The volume control on the front of the key pad was not working well, and was resulting in scratchy and intermittent sound. By the time I got the volume set to where I could understand it, the introduction message had already finished the English instructions and was off into other languages. I was not sure what I should do, so I finally gave up and pressed the select button. This eventually got me to the language menu, where I was able to select English and get started with my ballot.

The first major problem I had was that the ballot on the machine was not in the same order as the printed sample ballot. When my wife pointed this out to the chief poll worker, they were surprised to see the difference, and said maybe that would explain why they found that it was taking voters longer than expected to vote.

Because my notes were done in the order of the sample ballot, I had to do a lot of hopping around in my notes and more thorough and careful listening to the machine.

In contrast to what we had been told, the list of candidate names was spoken in alphabetical order.

It took me 30 minutes to work my way through the ballots and make my selections. After that, I had quite a bit of trouble getting into the review mode, to get a full list of all my selections. When I did, it went on and on, for 23 minutes, like a long uncontrolled drink from a firehouse. The review function read each item, and then, at the very end, said what my selection was for that item. It even threw in the details of what the fiscal impact would be, and took forever. This is completely backwards. It should announce the name of the item, then state my selection, and then read the rest of the information for that item. Also, I should have the control to press the arrow key to move forward or backward through the items, without having to listen to all the text about an item.

When I did find that I had made a mistake in my selections, I had to wait until the end of the whole review process to correct it, instead of being able to stop, make the change, and then continue with the review where I left off.

I did not want to abort the ballot verification review, to make a correction, and then have to start the 23 minute review all over again. When I later attempted to change one of my selections from "no" to "yes", the machine would not let me just select "yes", until I had first gone to the "no" entry and deselected it. This was very awkward and confusing. My wife said that she also had the problem when she was voting visually on her DRE machine.

At one point, as I was nearing the end of the ballot, I was dumped back into the language selection menu. I was being very careful to not push the "help" button, so I don't know why this language menu popped up. For a scary minute, I was afraid I had just lost my ballot and was having to start all over. I re-selected "English" and fortunately was returned to my previous location in the ballot.

An additional frustration was that the volume on some of the messages was so much lower than the rest of the messages that I had to fiddle with turning up the volume, repeating the message, and then turning the volume back down before proceeding. The volume on all the messages should be normalized to make them the same. This is easy to do and should be done for all messages.

From the time I signed in and got my voter smart card, it took 8 minutes to reboot the machine as an audio voting machine, 30 minutes to make my choices, 23 minutes to review and verify, and another 4 minutes to make a correction and record my vote. Not counting the hour waiting in line, it took me about 65 minutes to mark and record my ballot.

It would have taken even longer if I had been willing to wait, as prompted, until the end of each message to push the "select" button. The messages misled some folks because they say something like, " the end of this message, you can press the ...". This implies that you are supposed to wait until the speech message finishes.

Because the polling place was extremely small, the voting machines were too close together and not positioned to optimize privacy. While my wife was standing around, waiting for me to finish voting, she noticed that she could easily glance around and eavesdrop on the screens and ballots of other voters in the area. She feels that, for privacy reasons, the poll workers really shouldn't have allowed her to hang around in the voting booth area, while waiting for me to finish my voting.

When I was finally done voting, I took a portable radio out of my pocket and turned it on, with its earphone in my ear. The Sequoia voting machine was broadcasting a lot of radio noise on the AM band. This RF noise emission represents a possible electronic eavesdropping threat to privacy. Also, I noted that none of the poll workers seemed to notice or ask what kind of electronic device I was using and for what purpose. The polling place seemed to be too lax about letting people use cell phones, palmtops, or other electronic equipment in the polling place. There should have been, but were not, any announcements (audible or visible) warning voters against using cell phones, cameras, palmtops, or other electronic devices in the polling place.

There were 2 times when I would like to have asked for help from the poll workers. One was during the confusion I encountered from the difference between the printed sample ballot and the DRE ballot. The other time was near the end of my ballot marking, when I had a lot of trouble getting the review started and then was trying to find and change a mistake I found during the review. Unfortunately, because the poll workers would not be able to look at a visual display on my system, and didn't have any way to join me in listening to the audio output of the machine, I figured that I couldn't get much help from a poll worker (even though our head polling officer seemed very knowledgeable and helpful).

Background of Noel Runyan:

With his degree in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Noel Runyan has been working in human-factors engineering for over 35 years, primarily developing access technologies for helping persons with visual impairments use computers and other electronic devices. During the 5 years he worked for IBM, he was involved in the design and testing of the security systems for both BART ticket machines and ATM credit card systems.

After starting his own company to supply access technologies, he designed and manufactured the Audapter speech synthesizer, to enable computers to talk to visually impaired users. Noel also authored the EasyScan, BuckScan, and PicTac programs that made it easier for visually impaired users to read print books, identify dollar bills, and convert print pictures into raised line tactile drawings.

To help their visually impaired customers access and make use of computer systems, Noel and his wife, Deborah, have personally built hundreds of custom-integrated personal computers with speech, braille, and large print interfaces. More recently, he has been involved in the development of talking internet radios and talking pill bottles and other medical equipment for persons who have difficulties reading print labels and displays.