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Florida Officials Aim To Make Voting Easier For People With Disabilities

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For many Americans, all you need to fill out a ballot is a pen. But for those with disabilities, it is not always that simple. In Florida, some people with disabilities have to rely on others to fill out their mail-in ballots or clunky machines to vote in person. As Robbie Gaffney from member station WFSU reports, election officials are working to change that.

ROBBIE GAFFNEY, BYLINE: When someone shows up to vote in person, they can ask for accommodations. In Florida, polling places have accessible voting machines like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF VOTING MACHINE WHIRRING)

PRE-RECORDED VOICE: You have chosen to use the audio-tactile interface, or ATI, for your voting session.

GAFFNEY: The machine allows voters to listen to their ballot and, with a pad, select their own choices. Asking elections officials to set the machines up can be time-consuming and frustrating. But it's an improvement for blind voters like Doug Hall. He says the first time he voted, he wasn't able to cast his ballot in private.

DOUG HALL: I had to have a Republican and a Democrat in the booth with me. This is up in New York.

GAFFNEY: Hall was 21 when he first voted in 1968. He didn't know who the Republican or Democratic poll workers were, but they all had to cram into a small voting booth together. One party member would read out candidate names. Hall would say which person he'd like to vote for, and then the other party member would make sure his choice was selected.

HALL: You know, voting is supposed to be secret. But basically, what that meant is I was telling two other people how I was voting, and I really didn't like that.

GAFFNEY: Even now, voting with an absentee ballot can still mean telling someone else who you want to vote for. So five Florida counties are part of a pilot program aimed at making voting easier and more private. They're testing out Democracy Live's OmniBallot system. The company's founder, Bryan Finney, says voters get a link from their local elections office to log into a secure portal. They then fill out their ballot using a computer.

BRYAN FINNEY: If you happen to have mobility challenges, you can put in a sip-and-puff device. You can use tactile input, jelly switches. A whole array of different types of accessible technologies are compliant with this type of technology.

GAFFNEY: Volusia County is one of those testing the system in this year's general election. Elections Supervisor Lisa Lewis says, so far, it's getting positive reviews.

LISA LEWIS: They are not having to worry about going out. They can vote in private, mark it themselves, send it back in to us. So I think this is a great, great tool that we have provided and are providing to our voters with disabilities.

GAFFNEY: After filling out the ballot, voters print it out and either mail it in or drop it off. Disability rights advocates hope this system will expand to all Florida counties by 2022. Several states, including California, Alaska and Colorado, have approved electronic ballot delivery similar to what's being tested in Florida.

For NPR News, I'm Robbie Gaffney in Tallahassee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.