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Tactile Ballots
Alternative Voting Method for the Blind
by Mark Fresolone

Two important concerns are addressed by a simple, yet little known ballot technology known as the Tactile Ballot. They are an activist concern of providing auditable voting, and a new legal requirement of addressing the disabled in the voting place. In this article, I provide some background on the issue, and on the Tactile Ballot as deployed in Rhode Island.


Does HAVA require computerized voting machines?
Many interpret the 2002 Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, as requiring computerized voting machines of the type distributed in about 1/3 of the polling places in the US today. This is because HAVA requires that each polling location address disabled voters, and computerized voting machines provide a well publicized method of accommodating the sight impaired. However, HAVA only requires that the disabled are addressed, and does not stipulate the method of achieving this goal.

Why not use computerized voting machines everywhere?
A problem that many recognize with widespread rapid purchasing of these "direct recording electronic" or "DRE" machines is that today most are unauditable, insecure, and unreliable. Organizations such as VotersUnite.org and VerifiedVoting.org have documented dozens of cases of lost votes, impossible vote tallies (e.g. more votes recorded than registered voters in a district), and voters turned away by equipment failures, just since 2002. Many point out that while these types of incidents are obvious and do not go unnoticed, we have no way of knowing how accurate the many thousands of election results have been on machines that report a correct number of votes, but leave no vote-by-vote audit trail.

Aren't auditable voting machines available?
These flaws are largely addressed by an emerging number of DRE machines on the market that produce individual "voter-verified paper ballots." However, few of these machines are certified at either the Federal or State levels, and the vendors with the largest market shares and presence among State and County procurement organizations do not yet offer a voter-verified paper ballot.

A Simple, Low-Tech Solution: Tactile Ballots

Tactile Ballots offer states and counties wishing to comply with HAVA's disability accommodations an inexpensive, low-tech alternative to DRE machines.

The Tactile Ballot
On the web page linked to below, a picture of a Rhode Island tactile ballot appears at the bottom-right: http://www.electionaccess.org/Bp/Ballot_Templates.htm

Click on the photo itself to get a close-up. It's worth taking a look at the web site itself, ElectionAccess.org, as it describes the use of tactile ballots around the world.

How Tactile Ballots Work
The paper, a standard absentee ballot, is fairly heavy. Several copies of a ballot are used to create a single "tactile ballot". The page you see is only a guide, and the actual ballot is beneath it. There may also be a similar tactile guide page on the flip side, sandwiching the real ballot in the middle, if it's a two-sided ballot.

The orange areas are a raised plastic surface (tactile...). The top orange circles identify which column the voter is addressing. The longer orange blobs identify where to mark the ballot for each choice. Directly to their right, there is a hole in the paper, where the mark will be made. On the newer ballots we've received from RI, there is a short orange line on the right-hand-side of each hole as well. In addition, the top dots are replaced with special round stickers that are like cabinet door bumpers.

Privacy and Autonomy
Sight-impaired voters have long been denied autonomy and privacy in exercising their voting rights in most polling places around the country. After marking a Tactile Ballot, a voter can place it in a large, sealable envelope, ensuring complete anonymity.

Do Tactile Ballots address all disabilities?
Tactile Ballots do not address all disabilities. They're best suited for the sight-impaired. However, there are few if any DRE systems on the market that are considered to adequately address those with mobility and motor control impairments. Tactile Ballots match the disability support of the vast majority of state-of-the-art electronic voting machines, while costing very little. As we explore below, the most valuable use of Tactile Ballots today is to allow jurisdictions to buy time while the voting machine industry catches up with new regulations and guidelines, and thus get the most for their voting equipment dollar.

Should my County use Tactile Ballots to address HAVA?
The computerized voting machine industry today falls far short of meeting the disability requirements of the HAVA act, or the disability guidelines that have been published recently by the federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). A county with, say, punched cards or old "lever" machines today that wants to upgrade their voting systems can take advantage of two simple technologies in the short run -- optically scanned ballots and tactile ballots -- and by doing so, if they're so inclined that they eventually want an electronic solution, protect taxpayers' investments longer term.

Using Tactile Ballots to Maximize your County's Buying Power
By meeting HAVA requirements with traditional optically scanned and tactile ballots, a County spends little money during this period of dramatic change in the computerized voting machine industry. Many, like Rhode Island, will decide to simply remain with what is an inexpensive, auditable and transparent paper voting system. Eventually, a good number of DRE machines that address all of the disabilities stipulated in national guidelines, and for that matter, provide a voter-verified audit trail, will be on the market. At that time, jurisdictions that want electronic voting gear, and have held back on electronic voting machine purchases will enjoy highly competitive bidding, and thus much stronger buying power. As we've actually seen here in NJ, owning unauditable, inaccessible DRE machines early can make Counties or States vulnerable to steadily increasing price quotes for the add-ons.

Making tactile ballots
Here is a list of items needed to create tactile ballots in the manner used by Rhode Island.

A custom-made punch. (Manufacturer in Newark, NJ. Specifications below.)
Spot 'n Line Marking Pens
Tape recorders w/Headsets for use at the polls
Written explanation of tactile ballot voting process and ballot layout
Stereo cassette recorder to connect to the computer and create the tapes
Jaws software to translate the written ballot layout explanation into an audio tape. Note: In 2002, the RI Elections Division hired volunteers from a local television station to read the audio tape scripts instead of using the Jaws software, and they are now looking for a pool of volunteers to do this ongoing.
Word processing software to drive the Jaws software (they use Microsoft Word)
Standard Windows PC

Not counting the optional Jaws software, which is over $1000, the cost of the equipment and materials needed including 1000 ballots (heavy stock, $0.10 per sheet) is about $800.

Here is where you can obtain specialized materials:

Spot 'n Line Pen. The new-style column dot indicators are not listed in the instructions I received from RI, but I found what I think they're using at MaxiAids.

#BC-4 Punch w/4-1/4" reach and 1/8"x1/4" vertical rectangle. Bonny Vehslage Tool company, Newark, NJ 973-589-6975. The tool costs under $100.

Voice Software (optional)
Jaws software.

If I can get hold of an electronic version of the script that goes along with a ballot such as the Rhode Island sample shown here, I'll post it.

My thanks to the Rhode Island Board of Elections for their generous assistance in helping me understand their process.

Mark Fresolone
Hunterdon for Democracy
New Jersey for Democracy
email to ChezFrez{at}patmedia.net

Much ingenuity with a little money
is vastly more profitable and amusing
than much money without ingenuity.
~ Arnold Bennett

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