The National Federation of the Blind
of Connecticut
Blind Residents Have Right to Vote Privately, Independently

By Chris Kuell
Published in The Journal Inquirer:
Thursday, November 19, 2009 12:08 PM EST

I had a great time voting on Nov. 3. Beyond the pride of fulfilling my civic obligation and getting my "I Voted" sticker, I was thrilled to be able, for the fourth year now, to vote independently.

Until passage of the Help America Vote Act, signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, the Connecticut Voters Bill of Rights of 2002, and the arrival of the accessible, vote-by-phone system in 2006, I could only vote with assistance from another person. As a blind American, I was denied my constitutional right to vote privately and independently.

Fortunately, the dark days of voting discrimination are over for me - but not for all of Connecticut's blind, dyslexic, and physically disabled voters.

According to Lucian Pawlak from the secretary of the state's office, the registrars of voters from Manchester and New Milford decided they didn't have to offer accessible voting in this year's municipal elections.

In addition to ignoring the needs of Connecticut's disabled voters, this position violates Connecticut law. In a formal opinion to Secretary of the State Susan Bysiewicz in June 2007, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal wrote, "We conclude that the 'Voters Bill of Rights,' in particular Conn. Gen. Stat. § 9-236b(a)(9), grants disabled voters the right to vote privately and independently, and requires all polling places to provide a voting system that provides such private and independent access by physically disabled voters. … (T)he legislature intended to ensure that physically disabled voters be provided with the same level of accessibility in voting in non-federal elections that they have under HAVA in federal elections."

Timothy Becker, one of the registrars of voters in Manchester, said that he and his counterpart, Francis Maffe Jr., first sought approval from the town attorney before deciding not to utilize the vote-by-phone system.

"It's a privacy issue," Becker said. According to Becker, the vote-by-phone system produces a ballot that must be hand counted, hand tallied, and this tally becomes part of the public record. "If only one or two people use the system, theoretically, someone could figure out how they voted."

Maffe, the co-registrar in Manchester, concurred with Becker on the privacy issue, but his primary concern was the cost. He stated that with the phones, cables, fax machines, and people, it would have cost the town between $1,600 and $1,800. "I can't justify the expense in this economic climate," Maffe said.

These are specious arguments. In a town with 32,000 registered voters, and a 31 percent voter turnout on Nov. 3, there had to be more than "one or two" disabled voters interested in voting independently. Names aren't published when the vote is hand tallied. Having to vote with the assistance of a poll worker is a greater erosion of privacy, and who can guarantee that the pollster will keep the vote confidential?

The Secretary of the State's office covers the cost of the voting machine vendor, and paid for the phones, fax machines, assorted cables, and new phone lines back in 2006. "Costs to towns are based on a formula that charges $100 per page/per ballot style," Pawlak said. Since Manchester had only one single-paged ballot, the cost would have been $100.

Bob Burke, a blind Manchester resident forced to vote with the assistance of a poll worker at the Manchester Senior Center, has filed a complaint with the State Elections Enforcement Commission.

"They said they were told not to set up the phone - which is used only for national elections, not for municipal elections," Burke said. "It's not right."

Chris Cutter, one of the registrars of voters in New Milford, apologized for the town's oversight. "I've only been in the job for six months, and I was told we didn't have to offer vote-by-phone in municipal elections. It won't happen again."

Organizations such as the American Association of People with Disabilities and the National Federation of the Blind fought for years to get laws enacted which require that voting be accessible and private. The founding principle of the Americans with Disabilities Act is equal opportunity - equal opportunity for employment; equal opportunity to use private facilities, businesses, and programs; and equal opportunity to participate in the services and activities provided by state and local governments.

This includes voting.

Marge Gallo, a registrar of voters in Danbury, where I live, visits every polling place in the city to be sure the vote-by-phone system is working properly. "People with disabilities have the right to vote," she said. "It's my duty to be sure they can."

 

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