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Blind voter seeks poll privacy

When Wanda Austin votes, there's nothing private about it.

Because she is blind, Austin needs her husband, Jay, to accompany her into the voting booth to read candidate names. When she has made each choice, he punches her ballot.

It's no secret who she votes for because other voters can hear her, said Austin, of Clearwater.

"The whole process is so demeaning," she said. "It's demeaning as a citizen; it's demeaning as a person. You just feel like your constitutional rights just aren't there; it's no longer a private issue."

Austin, 47, who has been blind for about three years, remembers what it was like to vote on her own. She wants to do it again.

Since the 1992 presidential election, Austin has waged a letter-writing campaign to government officials to get the system changed for blind voters around the country. She even filed a complaint under the Americans with Disabilities Act against the Pinellas County elections office.

So far, her efforts have met with no success. And Election Day is next week.

A lack of technology and money seem to be the problems.

"I wish I had a more immediate solution for this lady, because I know it's a definite problem," said Scott Marshall of the American Foundation for the Blind, a national research and consulting group in Washington, D.C. "With time, this will get solved, but I don't see it happening immediately."

The foundation estimates that 4.3-million Americans are blind or nearly blind, and 3.5-million of those people are older than 65.

Austin said she'd like to see a system of voting by telephone for blind voters.

Though some cities have experimented with telephone voting, it could be at least a decade before such a system finds its way into local elections offices.

"We can't just on the merits of the cause spend a fortune that we don't even have to solve this problem," said Bill Kimberling of the Federal Election Commission.

But others say something needs to be done and that government officials need to be pressured if it's going to happen.

"Private ballot is one of the guarantees of a democracy, and therefore, I think it is proper that people who are blind should have a vehicle for voting that is private," said Herbert Stone, staff director for the U.S. House subcommittee on elections.

The problems of blind voters have received national attention. Rep. Bill Richardson, D-New Mexico, unsuccessfully proposed during the last session of Congress that $2-million be used to research telephone voting.

In the meantime, Braille ballots don't seem to be the answer, because only about 20 percent of blind people can read Braille. It is also expensive to translate a ballot into Braille, and conventional vote- tallying machines aren't equipped to count them.

"There's just no way to help right now," said Dorothy Ruggles, the Pinellas County supervisor of elections.

Current options for blind voters include voting at home with an absentee ballot or, like Austin, taking someone to the polls to help. Poll workers also can help blind voters cast their ballots.

No matter what option they choose, they need someone to help them punch their ballots.

In response to Austin's complaint, the U.S. Justice Department ruled last summer that Ruggles wasn't required to provide Braille ballots or electronic voting to blind voters.

"Although providing assistance to blind voters does not allow the individual to vote without assistance, it is an effective means of enabling an individual with a vision impairment to cast a ballot," the department told Austin in a letter.

But Austin said she knows of blind voters who have argued over their ballot selections with the people helping them vote. She said blind voters also have no assurance their ballots have been filled out the way they directed.

"I'm a fortunate person to have someone I trust," she said of her husband.

Betty Wright of Clearwater is visually impaired. She said she's not sure whether she'll be able to read the ballot Nov. 8. If she can't, she'll ask a poll worker for help.

She doesn't want to stay home and vote with an absentee ballot.

"I like to go to vote," said Wright, 74. "It means something to me to go to vote."