Everyone Counts’ eLect Today Provides Greater Access for Voters with Disabilities in Franklin County, WA

Everyone Counts’ eLect Today provides greater access for voters with disabilities in Franklin County, WA

By Dalina Castellanos, Herald staff writer

Disabled voters in Benton and Franklin counties will have new options for casting their ballots during this year's primary election.

In Franklin County, a form explaining a new pilot program to vote online was included with the ballots mailed to voters Tuesday.

And Benton County will have special voting units designed to assist people with disabilities. The units are equipped with headphones, large print ballots and the ability to connect with a sip-and-puff device to assist some quadriplegics in voting.

The new technology will be available to all voters, but county officials expect people with disabilities to benefit the most.

"This way they retain that kind of independence," said Zona Lenhart, Franklin County auditor.

Instead of having someone else assist them in casting their ballots, the county set up a website that works with a voter's computer to make ballot type bigger or to read the ballot aloud, among other options.

A security code is printed on each information sheet included with the mail-in ballot, allowing a Franklin County voter access to the online ballot.

State law prohibits ballots from being transmitted online, so once an e-ballot is marked, it is printed and mailed in just like any other ballot, Lenhart said.

The different options accommodate a broader range of people, said Tami Davis, voter education and outreach manager for the Secretary of State's election division.

"That's why I'm excited for what Benton and Franklin counties are doing," she said.

Disabled voters tend to move to more urban areas like the Tri-Cities to obtain services, she said, "even for something so simple as bus service." Voting is no exception, she added.

No other county is offering the online ballot, Davis said.

"It's always nice to see a county be innovative with a pilot project," she said.

Benton County is preparing to launch a similar program for the general election in November, but officials say it might take a while to get used to.

"It's a matter of preference," said Brenda Chilton, chief deputy auditor for Benton County. "We've had (voters) choose to come in and use the accessible voting units .... They're easy to use, and some people are still used to poll-site voting."