Madison: AutoMark – Off The Mark for People with Disabilities

The last thing people with poor eyesight and other disabilities need is a machine that is unreliable and can’t see straight itself:  <read and view video>

Since 2006, federal law has required that every polling place have voting equipment accessible to people with disabilities. Madison and other local governments use the ES&S AutoMARK. It’s equipped with headphones so voters can hear the choices, and it lets those with limited vision view a magnified ballot, which it then marks. The ballot is printed out and can be reviewed, like any other, before it’s turned in.

Using the ES&S AutoMARK last week at his polling place at Spring Harbor Elementary on Madison’s west side, Shultz noticed the alignment was off. So when he tried to make a given choice, the machine would register a vote for the opposing candidate.

Shultz found this so jarring he filmed it with his cell phone camera. One clip shows his finger touching the oval that says “Kathleen Falk”; that causes the oval for “Nancy Mistele” to fill in. Another clip shows how his effort to select Shirley Abrahamson became a vote for Randy Koschnick.

“It was that way for every single one,” says Shultz, whose field of study includes man/machine interfaces. “To select the candidates you wanted, you had to push right below them.”

Shultz worries that people with visual impairments might not see these different choices being made. He adds that “some simple changes” in the software program, like putting spaces between the choices, could fix this problem.

Adam Gallagher, Madison’s deputy city clerk, says the AutoMARK machines are calibrated before they’re delivered to the city’s 80 polling places. Sometimes the alignment can be off, but this is easily corrected, and the poll workers “know how to do that.” The workers are urged to mark their own ballots with these machines — “anybody can use them” — to test them out.

But Shultz believes he was the first person to use the machine at his polling place that day. The AutoMARK jammed trying to print his ballot, something he’s had happen before. So he ended up voting the ordinary way, making his own marks on a ballot.

In Connecticut we have the IVS system for voters with  disabilities, which has proven expensive, unpopular with election officials, and used infrequently by voters.   The Secretary of the State’s Office is considering replacing it and presumably the AutoMark would be a contender.  We see no reason to reject it based on a single reported problem and potential problems, yet it is worth emphasizing that we need to pick something that works well for everyone involved before we make another huge investment.

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