A new Maryland voting system designed to make it easier for the blind to vote independently isn't restricted to the blind.
When voters begin checking in at early voting centers starting Thursday, they will for the first time be told they have the option of using paper ballots or a machine that marks voting sheets for them. The same machines will be at polling places Nov. 8 for Election Day.
Attorney General Brian E. Frosh held a news conference Tuesday at the National Federation of the Blind headquarters in South Baltimore to demonstrate the new ballot marker technology.
While the ballot markers can be used by any voter, Frosh hailed the technology's ability to let blind and other visually impaired individuals cast ballots without assistance.
"Secrecy and privacy in elections are essential to the integrity of our elections," Frosh said.
Mark Riccobono, the federation's national chairman, said most blind voters have had the experience of depending on someone else to help them vote.
"It usually doesn't matter if they're a relative or not," he said. "You still wonder are they going to put down what you ask."
That capability is not new with the paper-based voting system introduced for the primary election this year. The option of independent voting was also a feature of the touch screen technology that Maryland used between 2002 and 2014.
However, federation officers and members who attended the news conference said the new voting system brings significant improvements.
Steve Booth, a federation member from Baltimore, tried out the new system Tuesday. He cast votes in a series of fanciful elections for such things as "favorite Maryland symbol," using a hand-held control pad similar to one from a video game player. The machine read off his choices, which he could hear through a headset, and confirmed that he had made his choices.
(For demonstration purposes, a speaker system stood in for the headsets.)
When Booth finished, the machine spat out a ballot sheet, which he fed into the same optical scanner machine used to count typical paper ballots.
Booth said he has been voting since 1972 but couldn't cast a ballot without help until he moved to Maryland for the 2006 election.
The new ballot marker, he said, is an improvement.
"This is much faster because you can change speeds," he said. Booth said he wished he could skip over candidates once he's heard the name of the one he wants to select, but he understands why the system requires that all of the choices be heard before a ballot is cast.
The audio quality is also much improved, Booth said. The old system, he said, "had this Donald Duck effect."
Sharon Maneki, president of the federation's Maryland chapter, said the new system is better than the old. But she added that "we're not there" yet in terms of an ideal system. Maneki said she'd prefer to see a system where the ballots used by blind and otherwise disabled voters appeared identical. Now they come in two different sizes though they are fed into the same machines.
"We don't want to have a segregated ballot," Maneki said. She'd like to see all voters encouraged to use the system – something that wasn't done in the primary.
"We've come a long way," she said. "The fear of technology is unfortunate."
John Willis, special counsel to the Attorney General's Office, said voters should have no concerns about the machines being hacked.
"At the polling place, none of these are connected to the Internet," he said.
Willis, a University of Baltimore professor and a recognized expert on running elections, said the new system is fully compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act. He pointed out that it even has a port where quadriplegics and others with mobility disorders can plug in a "sip-and-puff" device that lets them use their breath to cast votes privately.
Nikki Baines Charlson, deputy director of the State Board of Elections, said the ballot marking device can also help people with hand tremors cast their votes. The machines also offer an option where voters can use a touch screen to mark their ballots, which still have to be fed into the scanner. Those touch screens can be adjusted to enlarge fonts or vary contrast, she said.
"It's a solution for voters with a whole host of disabilities," she said.
For non-disabled voters, the ballot marking machines could present a slight time advantage if there are lines between the check-in table and the voting booth.
Unfortunately, when there are long lines, it's usually to check in. For those, the disabled and non-disabled are equally empowered – to wait.