Blind World Magazine

Visually impaired voters take new voting booth for a trial run.

October 30, 2005.
Contra Costa Times, CA.

Visually impaired voters have taken the county's new voting booth for a trial run and pronounced it uncommonly user-friendly.

A small group of students from the California School for the Blind in Fremont voted for best automobile manufacturer, best vocal artist and best ice cream flavor during a hands-on demonstration of the AutoMARK system at the county administration building Thursday.

Contra Costa and Sacramento will be the first two counties in the state to use AutoMARK, which helps people with physical or visual disabilities mark a paper ballot, during the Nov. 8 special election.

"You made my day," student Heather Kurtz called out to Registrar Steve Weir.

State and federal law require that by Jan. 1 every precinct in the state have at least one voting booth that can be used by those with disabilities -- and without help. It features magnified print, contrasting colors, an audio headset, directional keys, a foot pedal and a port for a respiration-activated device.

The $9 million system is paid for with funds from Proposition 41, approved by state voters in 2002, and the federal Help America Vote Act, passed the same year. The funds will provide the devices for 25,000 polling places in California and 200,000 across the nation.

Kurtz, took a moment to feel her way around the keys before sliding her ballot into the slot. The computer let her know she voted only once in a category that required two votes. The same feature tells voters if they choose too many options.

That's a requirement now. It became a hot issue during the 2000 Florida presidential election, when many voters are believed to have accidentally voted twice.

The students found a device that affords a rare ease of use.

"You don't find a lot of that," Kurtz said. "That's when you start getting frustrated. Like ATMs. They don't talk to you, so you don't know whether you made a mistake, where this told me, 'You chose one instead of two.'"

Ryan Terry's father has had to read ballot choices aloud to him at every election. He likes being able to do it himself much more.

Rebecca Rosen Lum covers county government. Reach her at 925-977-8506 or

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