More voting problems for blind people; state promises fix

An AutoMARK machine which is used for visually impaired voters. (Nov. 8, 2016)
An AutoMARK machine which is used for visually impaired voters. (Nov. 8, 2016)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Like everyone else on Tuesday, the blind and visually impaired wanted to make their voices heard.

But for some people using specially-designed machines that either audibly reads the ballots or increases the size of the fonts, Tuesday was a night filled with frustration. The reader, called “AutoMARK,” is used statewide in 10 states.

Jon Cauchi and Cassaundra Bell are both visually impaired and they had problems with the AutoMARK systems at polling places in the Burton Street and Breton Avenue SE area.

“The computer jammed again and again my vote was cast for opposite candidates than I would have preferred,” said Bell.

Cauchi said the same thing happened to him.

“It jammed, the voting official took the paper out of the machine, handed it to me and I noticed the whole right side of my paper was mismarked,”

Since election night, Bell, a social worker with Disability Advocates of Kent County, has been hearing from other people about their issues.

“Very similar stories of ballots jamming or even because of the jam, the ballot being ripped and having to be taped before it was submitted,” Bell said.

The issue is with the machines used in Michigan called the AutoMARK system in operation throughout the state and with one machine at every polling place in Kent County.

“It is old. We’ve had it for over 10 years,” said Susan DeSteiger, elections administrator at the Kent County Clerk’s Office.

She said her office heard sporadic reports of issues, mostly of paper jams often due to user error.

There’s no hard data for how many people are experiencing problems with the AutoMARK machines since those statistics are not tracked.

DeSteiger said much of the problem came when the ballots were not inserted properly causing a jam. She said the machines are not used a lot with some polling places not using them for years.

DeSteiger is part of the statewide group picked by the governor deciding what voting equipment will be available and should be in place by the 2018 gubernatorial election. She said the new machines will do what the current machines do – but better.

“It has a lot of good features and anything going forward, of course, will have all of those features plus like you said be more user friendly,” DeSteiger said.

That’s good news for Bell.

“It’s important to say ‘OK we see the problems, how do we move forward to make this voting process all the more easy for everyone,” Bell said.

She said visually impaired people want to be able to vote independently and privately like everyone else.

“That’s the exciting part for me. I love getting up super early and standing in line, because that’s one day we’re all coming together no matter who we are.”

Bell says she will be working to make sure visually impaired people and their advocates are included in the process of choosing equipment and also in the training of election workers. She said that way, access for all can be assured.