More From a Chief Election Officer:  Helping Older Voters

December 18, 2005

SUMMARY:  As we become more familiar with the touch screen voting machines, our familiarity with the normal way of doing things may cause us to miss opportunities to help (mostly older) voters who have mobility and/or visual acuity problems. Our assumption that older voters may have problems with the touch screen machines because they are not familiar with computers may be wrong. Problems seem to occur when older voters attempt to press a key to enter data (instead of the screen) as they would if working on a laptop computer.

As the touch screen voting machines are used for more and more elections, there is an increasing sense of familiarity with them on the part of both voters and election officials. For the most part this is a good thing, facilitating faster setup and tear down, and faster and more confident voting by voters. The downside to this is that while familiarity doesn't breed contempt, it does breed a bit of complacency and perhaps causes us to forget what these machines can actually do, particularly for our older voters.

In the 2005 statewide election, my assignment as chief election officer was switched from my past precinct (424 Huntley) with a relatively young voting population to one (408 Mount Eagle) with an older one. Throughout the day, we saw voters with mobility and visual acuity problems. Here are some of the lessons learned.


It seems to have become standard procedure in most precincts to place a voting machine on a table instead of on its legs and provide a chair for the voter to sit on at that machine if the voter desires to do so. When I did this at Huntley, most of the voters we directed to the machine on the table were those with children who wanted to see what their parents were doing. At Mount Eagle, we had some of these as well, but we also had a number of voters in wheelchairs or who were using walkers. The table worked extremely well for these voters, and on several occasions we had a short line of such voters waiting for that one machine. The electoral board should strongly encourage all precincts to set up one machine on a table rather than on its legs.

Visual Acuity

The second lesson involved voters with impaired visual acuity. At one point in the afternoon, a lady with fairly thick glasses approached a voting machine. As my election officer was asking her if she had used the touch screen machine before, she pulled a large magnifying glass out of her purse. I went up to the machine and asked my officer if he had given the voter the zoomed ballot. He immediately realized he had not done this, and before the voter had started to vote, we cancelled her ballot and re-initiated the machine in the zoomed mode, which seemed to help her to a good degree.

There are three points worth noting here. First, because voters so rarely ask for a zoomed ballot (if they even know such a thing exists), officers working the machine sometimes forget that it's there and don't offer it even in obvious cases. Election officer training should emphasize use of a zoomed ballot when appropriate, and chiefs and assistant chiefs should re-emphasize it to their officers as part of the setup – for example, when checking the ballot on each machine for correctness.

Second, to be most effective, a zoomed ballot should have very large type. In this election, the zoomed ballot filled about 40-50% of the screen, using one screen for each race/question on the ballot. It would have been far more helpful to those voters with reduced visual acuity if the print had been even bigger, filling 80-90% of the screen. While the amount of the zoom was better than the standard ballot, it wasn't nearly as large as it could have been. This needs to be improved for the next election.

Third, I learned the true purpose of the magnifying glass. Previously, I had left it on the poll book table to be used by my older election officials. It never occurred to me that a voter might need to use it. Chiefs who are relatively new should be reminded that the glass was originally for use by the voters, and all chiefs should remind their election officials. This is something that was once certainly well known, but is less known as more experienced election workers are replaced by newer ones.

In the 2005 primary and general elections there has been some downtime at the polling place when there were few or no voters. I've made use of this time to have my assistant chiefs and as many officers as time permits try the audio ballot for blind voters. I had been told that the audio ballot was complex and time consuming. While it certainly does take more time than a regular ballot, it is by no means confusing or complex. I think that the more the election officers work with the ballot, the more confident they will be assisting voters who need to use it. Personally, I have found it helpful to close my eyes while I try the audio ballot. The audio instructions are very clear. I've found that the only concern that officers have is that they might accidentally vote, and if they know how to cancel a ballot, that fear quickly goes away if they are told to stop and cancel after they have done half of the races on the ballot. It should also be noted that the audio ballot should be used on the machine that sits on the table with the chair. No voter should have to use the audio ballot while standing at a machine.

Understanding the Touch Screen

It is often hypothesized that older voters struggle with the new voting machines because they are "inexperienced with computers." Based on what I saw at Mount Eagle, the problem is just the reverse. Many older voters had difficulty with the touch screen concept because they ARE familiar with computers (and ATMs) and were looking to push a key to enter their selections instead of touching the screen. On a number of occasions when the big red vote button was on screen, voters were apparently attempting to push the green oval product logo on the body of the voting machine as if it were an enter key. It's clear that because the voting machine looks like a laptop, a number of voters are expecting it to behave like a laptop. I believe that some voters would be helped if the screen had graphic buttons that said things like "Touch here to VOTE" and "Touch here for NEXT." It would also help to make officers staffing the machines aware of this so that they might remind the voter to touch the screen if they are told that "nothing is happening."

As the "new" voting machines become more familiar to our voters, we election officers need to focus on how we help our voters use them more efficiently. I learned some valuable lessons about the machines by working at a precinct with more older voters, and I hope the Electoral Board can share these lessons with other chief election officers.
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