Voting in 2004

The controversies surrounding the 2000 presidential election prompted passage in 2002 of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which, among its other provisions, requires that states make polling places and the voting process accessible to voters with disabilities. I have friends in Minnesota who’ve been involved in determining how blind and visually impaired people will gain access to the voting process, but nothing was in place by November 2.

Imagine my surprise when I learned last year that Georgia had accessible voting machines that had been in use for two years. The state replaced a hodgepodge of paper ballot systems and antiquated voting machines with touch-screen voting equipment. Maybe it was Georgia’s proximity to Florida that prompted the state to so quickly implement the provisions of HAVA. Is touch-screen voting the best and most tamper-proof form of technology? I don’t know, and no, there’s no paper record of a person’s votes, but the technology allows for large print and voice output of what’s on the screen.

I was dreading the prospect of going to vote. For me, voting has always involved thinking about just how I was going to accomplish the task, and it was often an irritating process. I had to take someone with me: either my mom, a friend, a reader, and in more recent years, Don. Then there were the election judges to contend with – always elderly and typically baffled by my presence. They could neither correctly spell my name, nor speak to me directly. “Is she supposed to vote in this precinct?” “Can she sign her name?” “Can you help her vote?”

It was worse if I’d come alone and had to ask for their assistance to vote. It always had to be two of them, one Democrat and one Republican. In years past, they both would crowd into the voting booth along with me, and one would throw the right lever while the other looked on. “You want to vote for Paul Wellstone?” he would loudly inquire. He had to make sure he’d heard right. I would mumble affirmatively in response, embarrassed that everyone could hear how I was voting. I was fed up with the Election Day rigmarole. I even thought, after moving to Georgia, that if I couldn’t cast my own vote I wouldn’t vote this time around at all.

In October the Savannah Council of the Blind held a demonstration of the voice and large print ballots; since I knew my precinct had to have one voting machine that could be made to run with voice output, I knew I had to give it a try. Yet I still dreaded the prospect. I felt I needed to go at a different time from Don, just to make those judges deal with me directly without assuming Don was there to speak for me.

After a 15-minute walk I arrived at my polling place. Even with the doors open, the church was sweltering inside. It was well above 80 degrees; it seemed surreal that I could be voting in November in such heat. The first poll worker insisted I sit while they all pondered whether or not I could vote in that precinct. I didn’t mind. I had decided on the way over I would be as patient as possible with the poll workers and see where it got me.

While I sat, our next-door neighbors came in and quickly voted. We talked, and they asked on their way out if they could help. I was relieved to be able to say, “No, they’ve got an accessible voting machine. They’re just getting it ready.” And, indeed, one of the poll workers had clearly been trained in what to do and after asking me if I wanted the “hidden ballot” (the screen would be blank) she set to work hooking up a keyboard and loading software to make one of the precinct’s four machines talk.

Finally, after I had signed the requisite voting certificate and the machine was ready to go, I walked over to a table, put on headphones, and listened to the instructions on the first screen. After assuring the poll worker that everything was operating as it should, I was left by myself!

The process was made very simple with the 4, 5, and 6 of the telephone keypad used to vote for a candidate, go backward to review names, and go forward to the next candidate or race. Yes or No votes were cast in the same way, including mine on the ludicrous gay marriage amendment to the state’s Constitution.

When I had confirmed and reconfirmed all my votes and submitted my ballot, the plastic card clicked out of the slot and the poll worker was there to collect it. I smiled at her and said, “This is the first time I’ve ever voted by myself.” I wanted her to know that the efforts to make the machines accessible were worth it.

I don’t know how long it took me to vote. I know I was at the church for over half an hour, and even though it was at lunchtime, surprisingly few other people came and went. As Manda and I stepped outside, another poll worker handed me two peach-shaped “I voted” stickers. I guess one was for Manda, though even in dog years she’s too young to vote. As elated as I was, I didn’t want to put on both: I thought it might send the wrong message.

Aside from how discouraging most of the results of this election are to me, that doesn’t diminish the thrill of finally fully participating in a small act that is fundamental to our form of government. Voting took on new meaning for me this time, and having spent possibly half my voting life carrying out that act through others, I won’t take for granted finally being able to do it for myself.

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