New Vote-by-Phone Plan Considered
by Defense Department


Eric S. Crouch,
Medill News Service

Casting a vote may soon be as easy as checking voice mail for some voters. The Department of Defense is considering a new vote-by-phone technology for military and overseas voters, according to a DOD spokesperson.

"Voting by phone offers a future possibility and alternative to the by-mail process for these absentee voters," said Polli Brunelli, director of the Federal Voting Assistance Program, in an e-mail interview.

The phone voting system was demonstrated to the public in Vermont earlier this month. Vermont is the first state to announce that it will offer telephone voting next year. Brunelli was present at the demonstration and says she liked what she saw.

"Voter instructions were clear," said Brunelli. "The system allowed me to make candidate selections, review my choices, change my selections, write in a candidate, and verify my choices before casting my ballot."
Technology Geared Toward Disabled

While those without direct access to a polling place could find the vote-by-phone system useful, Vermont officials actually are trying to help a different genre of voters--the disabled.

"The vote-by-phone system is designed for people with disabilities, but it's useful for people with a very large range of different abilities," said Vermont Secretary of State Deb Markowitz. "People who are illiterate could use the system [as could] someone with mental disabilities who might find it easier to be read to. There are a whole range of people who might benefit from the system."

James Dickson of the American Association of People with Disabilities was also in Vermont for the demonstration. Dickson, who is blind, called the technology "an important step" and said that he had no trouble voting in the mock election. But he cautioned that, for disabled voters, there is no solution that works for all disabilities.

He says some people, like those who are paralyzed or have cerebral palsy, are unable to use a regular phone keypad, but enlarging it to help them would cause problems for others. Still others, he says, have trouble processing audio information.

"So, there are trade-offs," Dickson said.
IVS Developed Technology

The technology used in Vermont was produced by the Inspire Vote-by-Phone System. According to IVS, a poll worker will use a designated telephone to call the system, enter special ID numbers to access the appropriate ballot recording, then give the phone to the voter and leave the voting booth. The system will read the ballot to the voter, who will make choices using the phone keypad. The system prints out a paper ballot for the voter to read, or the voter can listen to their ballot choices after it is scanned into a machine. The voter may decide to cast the ballot or discard it and revote.

Vermont picked the IVS system to fulfill a requirement in the 2002 Help America Vote Act that every U.S. polling place have a voting system accessible to disabled voters by January 1, 2006.

The Defense Department was interested in seeing the system not because of the 2002 law, but to investigate whether it would make absentee voting easier for soldiers away from home.

Brunelli says the Pentagon is still investigating a number of options and has not yet asked for proposals from contractors.
Possible Problems

For voters not standing in the actual voting booth, there are a number of hazards that phone voting or electronic voting companies need to avert, says Linda Schade, executive director of TrueVoteMD.org, a group that strives for verifiable voting.

"You want to make sure the votes coming in are not from dead people or make-believe people but from actual voters," Schade said. "You also want to make sure that their identity is kept secret and their vote is kept secret."

Recent problems involving e-voting machines in Maryland and Florida have demonstrated that there are many kinks that need to be addressed in e-voting. Schade says she thinks the numeric keypad is more likely to yield accurate voting data.

"The phone touchpad seems to be much less finicky [than touch screens used for e-voting]," said Schade. "On the other hand, we've all dialed wrong numbers, too."

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