NYT: Oregon tests if the iPad could replace voting machines for disabled voters

November 16, 2011
Katherine Seelye
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Could the iPad someday supplant the voting machine?

Oregon last week became the first state in the country to use iPads to allow people with disabilities to vote, and it intends to use them again for another election in January. Several other states are expected to follow suit with iPads or other tablets, possibly as early as for next year’s presidential election.

In a special primary election in five counties in Oregon, 89 people with disabilities marked their ballots on an iPad. They did not actually cast their votes online — Internet voting is an idea whose time has not yet come, several elections officials said.

Rather, these voters used iPads, brought to their homes or nursing homes by election workers, to call up their ballots, mark them on-screen and print them out on a portable wireless printer. The voters or assistants then either mailed in the printed ballots or dropped them off at election stations.

One woman, who has impaired vision, was able to enlarge the print on her ballot so that she could see the names of candidates. A man with arthritis who could not hold a pen was able to touch the screen with his finger and mark his ballot.

“The goal was to make voting accessible and convenient for voters with disabilities, and the iPad does exactly that,” said Kate Brown, Oregon’s secretary of state.

For the Jan. 31 election, she said, voters with disabilities will have even more iPad options: those who cannot use their hands, for example, can use a tube to activate software that lets them call up the ballot and mark it. They will be able to attach their own joysticks or paddles. The iPad can also translate the ballot for those who do not speak English, and read it out to the blind.

Ms. Brown said that the state tried out several different tablets and devices at a conference this year and found that people with disabilities preferred the iPad.

Jim Dickson, vice president for government affairs at the American Association of People With Disabilities, commended Oregon’s experiment. “Is the iPad perfect?” he said. “No. But it is an important step forward.” One challenge is that the visually impaired cannot read the printouts of their ballots to verify them.

Election workers found the iPad and wireless printers more convenient than the computer stations that they had previously dragged to homebound voters.

Ms. Brown said that if the experiment went as well in January — when voters in five counties will choose a replacement for Representative David Wu, a Democrat who resigned after a sex scandal — she expected to expand the program statewide.

Other states are interested, too. “It’s definitely a direction we’re moving in,” said Shane Hamlin, co-director of elections for Washington State, although he said it was too early to say whether tablet voting might be available to all voters or just those with disabilities.

But he said that in the long run, voting by iPad or a similar device could save money, considering the costs of maintaining, storing and updating regular voting machines.

Lori J. Steele, chief executive officer of Everyone Counts, the California company that developed the software used by Oregon, said she expected that a half-dozen states would be using iPads or similar tablets for people with disabilities in next year’s presidential election.

“Oregon is the model for what states could and will be doing in the next few years,” she said. “I can see the transformation as old equipment becomes obsolete.”