MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) – When Michael Arnowitt got to the polling place at City Hall last Tuesday, an assistant clerk led him to the voting booth at the end of the row, where a special phone with an oversized keypad allowed the legally blind musician to vote without needing to have the ballot read to him.

“The great advantage of phone voting is that I get my privacy back,” said Arnowitt, 46, an internationally known classical and jazz pianist.

Vermont and four other states allowing people with certain disabilities to vote by phone under the Help America Vote Act, a 2002 federal law designed in part to ensure equal access to the polls for all.

It uses a special phone with a large keypad that has a bump in the 5 for those working by touch.

The call goes to a computer that provides a series of verbal prompts leading the voter through the ballot. It lists the candidates for each office and asks that when the voter’s selection for a particular office is read, the voter push 5.

Historically, people with visual impairments and some other disabilities have had to rely on an election worker – or have been allowed to bring a friend or loved one – to help with reading and filling out Vermont’s paper ballots. The goal of the new technology is to give those voters the same sense of independence and privacy when voting that people without disabilities enjoy.

But the federally funded effort – which has cost about $180,000 to implement in Vermont since being introduced in 2006 – is raising questions of efficiency.

Just 29 people around the state took advantage of the technology this general election, down from 53 two years ago, said Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz.

She questioned whether that level of participation made it reasonable to place a special phone and dedicated phone line in all 251 Vermont municipalities, as required by the federal law.

“It seems like government waste to provide technology that nobody uses,” Markowitz said. But she said she’s sympathetic to the goal of giving access to people with disabilities.

She said Congress could have chosen other methods that “might have been more cost-effective.” One possibility would be requiring the phones to be installed only at polling places where a voter or voters had requested one ahead of time.

Arnowitt said he thinks the system still has some bugs that need working out, problems that he believes might contribute to the low usage.

When he approached the check-in table for voting at Montpelier City Hall, carrying a cane and needing guidance to stay on the right side of the table, he needed to ask about voting by phone, rather than having election workers offer it to him.

Markowitz said her office had been encouraging local clerks and other election officials to do a better job promoting the service – even distributing a training video.

“During a really busy election, it’s understandable that they’re distracted and in some cases may just forget.”

Arnowitt said he was also bothered by the fact that his vote wouldn’t be counted immediately.

The phone calls using the system go to a central computer at the secretary of state’s office, and aren’t relayed back to the city or town where the voter lives until after the election. That means it will make the final certified tally usually issued a week later, but was excluded from unofficial counts reported by the media on election night.

Both Markowitz and Ed Paquin, executive director of Vermont Protection and Advocacy, which works to promote the rights of the disabled, said the low usage of the vote-by-phone system might be due in part to how easy it is to vote absentee in Vermont.

Many find it easier to get a ballot before the election, get some help filling it out at home and mailing it in, they said.

Paquin said he had tried the vote-by phone system as his group reviewed it.

“It takes a while and it’s somewhat awkward. I’ve tried the machine several times and I find that I can fill out a ballot more quickly by reading it.”

But Paquin noted that his disability – he uses a wheelchair – had been accommodated at polling places with lower tables in some voting booths.

“We want a system where we can go into the same place other people do and vote independently and without assistance,” he said, summing up what he had heard from his fellow advocates for the disabled. “I agree with that principle. That’s the principle toward which this vote-by-phone was oriented.”


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