When the residents of a few small New Hampshire towns cast their votes at midnight Monday, kicking off the presidential primary season, they will make history. Two residents of Hart’s Location and Dixville Notch will use a voting system designed for people with disabilities—marking the first time any voter has used the accessible system during the first-in-the-nation midnight primary.
Monday’s midnight debut is admittedly a publicity stunt, advocates say. Hart’s Location and Dixville Notch have very few residents, and none of them requested accessible voting machines, according to officials. But the fact that the voting system is available is still significant, and in line with a presidential primary cycle that has brought significantly more attention to disabled voters.
This year is the first year that every polling place in New Hampshire will offer the option of using the new accessible voting system, One4All, according to New Hampshire’s Deputy Secretary of State, David Scanlan.
Midnight voting “highlights the importance of voting, highlights the importance of our participatory democracy,” says Ed Butler, a New Hampshire state representative, who will use One4All in Hart’s Location. “And that should be accessible for every citizen. That includes people who have disabilities or people who have difficulty getting to the polls.” While Butler is not disabled, he has sponsored disability rights legislation in the state legislature and said he wants to be an example for other voters.
Roughly 19% of New Hampshire voters have a disability, according to James Ziegra, a staff attorney at advocacy group Disability Rights Center-New Hampshire, who will be onsite to see Butler’s vote in Hart’s Location. Voter turnout among people with disabilities is typically low due to inaccessible polling places, barriers such as voter ID laws and a lack of engagement from politicians.
New Hampshire was already a leader in accessible voting when it first introduced a version of the One4All system in 2016. But the 2020 system, which has a touch screen, a keyboard and an updated synthetic voice to provide improved audio instructions, offers a marked improvement. While the older version printed voters’ selections onto plain paper, which required elections officials to count the votes by hand, the new version prints onto traditional ballots that can be counted along with the rest of their precinct, improving efficiency and offering voters more privacy. These updates are designed to help people with disabilities cast votes without asking for assistance from poll workers or other helpers.
“This allows people with disabilities to exercise the right to vote privately and independently,” says Ziegra.
The other voter who will use the One4All system at midnight is Leslie Otten, the new developer of the Balsams Resort, who recently moved to Dixville Notch to ensure the unincorporated township could continue holding its midnight tradition. Otten co-founded a nonprofit that offers sports programs for people with disabilities and another that promotes inclusion in grade schools. “This is a privilege to highlight something that’s been an important part of my life for 40 years,” he said on Monday.
The tradition of midnight voting in towns such as Hart’s Location, Dixville Notch and Millsfield, New Hampshire began more than 60 years ago mostly due to practical considerations for the residents who lived in these remote areas. Over the decades, it has turned into a media event with local and national press visiting the northern outposts that still vote at midnight.
Advocates say they hope the availability of the One4All machines will encourage more disabled voters to participate in the elections. “I would sincerely hope that everyone would take a really close look at what we’re doing,” Otten says, “and find a way to make sure that every American gets to visit the ballot box.”
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