Politics & Government

Visually impaired voters couldn’t cast ballots on new voting machines without help

Gary McAfee lost one of the things he valued the most on Election Day: the ability to cast a ballot by himself.

The 61-year-old Grand Prairie man, who is blind, has been able for years to cast his ballot using headphones that gave him audio assistance.

But this year was different with the county’s new $11 million Hart InterCivic voting machines.

“It took away any independence I had ever celebrated,” McAfee said.

He and some other blind and visually impaired voters in Tarrant County struggled to cast ballots.

They found that headphones either weren’t there or weren’t working, so poll workers or family members had to read the ballot to them.

And they found it difficult to work with the paper ballots because they didn’t know where the paper was to be inserted into the machines or what side needed to face up.

Star-Telegram reporter Elizabeth Campbell, who is blind, filed a complaint with Tarrant County after she was unable to vote independently.

Election officials say ADA devices and headphones should have been available at voting sites.

“The ADA section of the training will be reviewed to emphasize the critical nature of providing the right service to voters with disabilities,” Tarrant County Elections Administrator Heider Garcia said.

The problems McAfee and other visually impaired voters found on Election Day are just among the variety of problems that arose that day.

Hart InterCivic officials say there are a number of features for visually impaired voters on the new machines.

“These systems are designed for people with disabilities to vote completely independently,” said Steven Sockwell, the vice president of marketing for the Austin-based company.

He said the machines ship from the office with a kit that includes the headphones. And when county workers program the ballot, the audio ballot is part of the machine and the process.

Election officials say there are markings on voting machines that indicate where the paper should be inserted and notches on the ballots to help voters determine how the paper should be inserted.

“We believe the system is designed properly,” Sockwell said.

Voting systems in Texas long have been required to be accessible to voters with disabilities.

“You have the right to vote whether you have a disability or not, as long as you are registered to vote,” Disability Rights Texas states.

McAfee and his wife, Kerin, voted at a church on the Tarrant County side of Grand Prairie.

Poll workers first had problems finding Gary McAfee in the system, because they treated his state ID card as if it was a driver’s license. Once they found him in the system, he was ready to vote.

His wife told workers they needed the accessibility booth, but nothing was set up.

There was nothing available — no earphones or anything — to help Gary McAfee vote by himself.

“I ended up having to read the propositions on the ballot to him,” Kerin McAfee said. “We weren’t really isolated. We are hearing all the commotion going on in the rest of the voting area and they are hearing us too.

“We did manage to get through it.”

But Gary McAfee said he didn’t know what side of the paper needed to face up to be inserted into the first machine — and he didn’t know which side needed to face up to be inserted into the second machine, to formally cast his vote.

He and other visually impaired voters say they lost two things on Election Day that they had become accustomed to having: the ability to vote privately and independently.

“It was frustrating,” he said. “We’ve had the privilege of doing this with headphones (with past Tarrant voting machines).

“I think it was a lack of training on their part and they were ill prepared to serve our needs.”

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Anna M. Tinsley grew up in a journalism family and has been a reporter for the Star-Telegram since 2001. She has covered the Texas Legislature and politics for more than two decades and has won multiple awards for political reporting, most recently a third place from APME for deadline writing. She is a Baylor University graduate.