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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho tests new voting machines for people with disabilities

Mike Gibson of Nampa, who is blind, talks about a new accessible voting machine he tried out that he termed "really easy to use." It operates with a controller similar to those used for video games.   (Betsy Z. Russell / The Spokesman-Review)

BOISE – Since 2004, all states have been required to have at least one voting machine that works for people with disabilities in every one of its in-person polling places.

Idaho, where most still vote in person, has about 1,000 of them.

But now they’re nearing the end of their useful life, and as the state looks at certifying new machines, state officials invited people with or without disabilities to try out five new models at the state Capitol on Friday.

“It’s for anybody that has difficulty seeing or marking a ballot and the general public – anybody can vote on it if they want. I always do” said Jim Mairs, Help America Vote Act coordinator for the Idaho secretary of state’s office.

Mike Gibson, 44, tried one and termed it “really easy to use.” Gibson, who is blind, said, “It sounds funny, but it’s a game controller. It’s kind of something I’m familiar with and been around before.”

Gibson said the first time he voted 26 years ago, he had to have someone read the ballot to him and complete it for him. “It was that way until after the 2000 election,” he said.

Now, accessible devices allow him to vote on his own.

The new machines – and the existing ones – even feature a “sip and puff” feature for people who use their breath to activate their wheelchairs. Some of the new ones operate on tablets; others are touch-screen devices.

Gibson, assistive technology coordinator for Boise State University’s Disabilities Resource Center, was one of many Idahoans trying out the new machines on Friday. He said over the years, he’s used various types of accessible voting machines.

“Really, what determines the success or the agony of the voting experience is the training of the local poll workers at my voting location,” he said. “It has a direct impact on my voting experience.”

Micki Love, an elections clerk for Ada County, was among a group of county elections workers who tried out all five of the new machines. “This one’s a lot simpler,” she said, after trying out an HTML ballot that’s in use in Oregon.

The demonstration was part of Friday’s festivities marking the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Idaho secretary of state’s office will use the feedback on the machines to guide the questions it asks when it reviews them for certification.

“We really want to see: Is this viable? Can people vote on it?” Mairs said.

Idaho counties are free to choose from among all certified machines. They also decide when to replace existing models. The machines cost roughly $5,000 apiece.

– Betsy Z. Russell