Aug 11, 2022 - Politics

Perkins School partnership seeks more accessible voting

Illustration of a Vote button with red cross symbols replacing the stars.
Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

Perkins School for the Blind has partnered with a local election technology company to make it easier for visually-impaired voters to make their voices heard.

What's happening: Boston-based Clear Ballot enlisted Perkins Access, the school's digital accessibility arm, to test its new ClearMark voting machines, which let disabled voters cast and review ballots without assistance.

Why it matters: A quarter of voting-age Americans have a disability that can impact their mobility. The pandemic made voting more accessible with the expansion of mail-in ballots, but not as much has been done for disabled voters who want to cast ballots in person.

What they're saying: Perkins Library executive director Kim Charlson, an accessible media expert who tested ClearMark, told Axios that blind and disabled voters had few options before the expansion of mail-in voting and earlier accessibility systems like Clear Ballot's ClearAccess system.

  • "You didn't do anything independently," Charlson said, noting that disabled voters often had to be accompanied by a friend or family member.

ClearMark, the successor to ClearAccess, offers more control features to make it easier to use for a wider selection of disabled users. Thirty-six volunteers from Perkins who are blind, low-vision, deaf, or physically or cognitively disabled tested the system over three days in March in mock elections. The company said all volunteers were able to cast their ballots without help.

How it works: The machine has an electronic screen for high-contrast and large-format text to magnify the ballot for low-vision voters.

  • Voters can plug headphones into a control pad, which lets them navigate the ballot and be read the names of each candidate and office.
  • Voters can even write in a preferred candidate's name using a control pad to navigate the alphabet — a step up from the earlier system.
  • Jurisdictions that are already using Clear Access can continue to do so, but ClearMark will succeed it as it becomes certified in more jurisdictions.

Yes, but: Though ClearMark is electronic, it's compatible with paper-based voting systems like the one Massachusetts uses. But Clear Ballot doesn't operate any elections here. The company is active in Colorado, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington.

  • A company spokesperson told Axios that they've previously reached out to the commonwealth to begin offering its services, and hopes to restart those talks.

What's next: ClearAccess is already available for elections officials, and ClearMark will follow.

  • Clear Ballot is continuing to test the new system as it seeks to distribute it across the country. The company expects certification for New York to come next year.
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