Disabled voters face hurdles

Carl Balleck votes in nearly every election, but it's been 10 years since he marked a ballot.

Since losing his sight, he depends on his wife to fill in the ovals for him.

"You have to have a level of trust," he said.

Balleck is among many of Moffat County's disabled population who takes advantage of absentee voting to cast his ballot.

That's about the only way he can vote and maintain some measure of privacy.

Other disabled voters aren't happy with a system that forces them to depend on someone else for a right as basic as voting.

"Many people don't even realize that what we're doing is avoiding the problem," Independent Life Center Director Evelyn Tileston said. "That's OK, at least they're voting, but there is still more to be done."

Tileston, who votes early because she is visually impaired and because the polls offer her no privacy to state her choices, longs for the day when she can mark her own ballot.

It won't be long. The federal Help America Vote Act requires all counties to have at least one voting machine by 2006 that is accessible to people with disabilities. The machine will be equipped to read ballots in more than 100 languages, has a "sip and puff" option for voters who cannot use their hands, and can read questions to those who are visually impaired.

The 2000 census estimates that 8.8 percent of Moffat County's population aged 21 to 64 and 50 percent of those aged 65 and over are disabled.

According to a Harris Poll, turnout among disabled voters is generally 16 percent below average turnout. In the 1996 presidential election, 49 percent of America's registered voters made it to the polls while only 31 percent of those with disabilities cast a ballot. There was a 10 percent difference in the 2000 election.

HAVA's solution was to form advocacy groups in all 50 states to determine why members of the disabled population aren't voting, to educate them about their rights and to encourage them to vote. Colorado's Legal Center for People with Disabilities and Older People established a VOTE! program to comply.

Craig's Independent Life Center recently received a $2,000 grant from the program to survey those who are disabled in the three counties the ILC serves to determine their degree of participation and what would increase that.

Faith Gross, VOTE! program coordinator, said there are several reasons members of the disabled community don't get to the polls on election day. The primary one is accessibility.

Another limiting factor, she said, is that many disabled voters, particularly those with visual impairments, are denied privacy and confidentiality.

One of the most significant problems Gross has found is that educational materials and campaign propaganda aren't designed to accommodate those with disabilities. She said she has been told that people didn't vote because they didn't understand the issues well enough. Information is usually available in a printed format, which is inaccessible to those with visual impairments, cognitive disabilities or non-English speakers.

The 2000 Census figures indicate that 5.1 percent of Moffat County's population speaks English "less than well."

Election law states that until 25 percent of a county's population is non-English speaking, ballots need only be printed in English.

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