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Jun 23, 2005
Telephone Voting: An Accessible Step Forward
By Angela Katsakis

The ability to vote secretly and independently is one of the cornerstones of civic participation in most countries of the globe. In the United Kingdom, 59 cities had the opportunity to test up to 5 new voting systems. For the first time ever, in May of 2003, thousands of UK voters in 17 cities could vote by using their home telephone in an election. In the UK, the percentage of people with disabilities is roughly similar to figures for the United States. To use the telephone to vote, there was no form to fill out. Any citizen in any of the 17 cities, from the privacy of his own home, could simply pick up the phone and begin the voting process.

How did the UK do it? Each voter received 2 cards in the mail; the first was an access card and the second card had a Personal Identification Number (PIN) for each voter, similar to the PIN on a bank debit card. With instructions, a voter dialed a toll-free number and followed the simple instructions to enter the numbers from both cards to activate the process. Once completed, the phone voting system used a system similar to voice mail to select the candidates for each office. After the voter reviewed his ballot and pressed the # key, he received an immediate confirmation that his vote was securely and accurately recorded. After that, the voter’s name was reported as a completed vote and removed from the file records so that a voter would not be able to vote twice.

Using specialized and complex encryption data at each internal security layer, completed phone voting ballots were privately, randomly, and securely recorded and counted in each of the 17 cities. When polled by election authorities in the UK, the Electoral Commission reports that 93% of the users rated the system as very or fairly good, 99% of phone voting users said it was convenient and 92% said it provided privacy. In May of 2006, the UK will launch the second phase of telephone voting in a larger number of cities to further develop the system.

In the United States today, Oregon is leading the nation to develop a phone voting for people with disabilities in an upcoming election. Carefully testing new systems in small, local elections is an established protocol of good election management and this is exactly what Oregon proposes. Oregon Senate Bill 1046 is pending approval for the use of telephone voting for people with disabilities in the Beaver State. Pictured in AAPD’s newsletter as they personally test telephone voting is the Oregon Secretary of State, Bill Bradbury (who uses a wheelchair), and the Chair of the Election Assistance Commission, Gracia Hillman.

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) presents Oregon with a unique challenge because every voter in Oregon votes absentee--there are no polling places. Immediately after the passage of HAVA, AAPD staff began discussions with the Secretary of State to initiate phone voting. AAPD researched the UK vote by phone system and made that information available to advocates and election officials. AAPD’s Jim Dickson met with the Oregon Association of County Election Directors and recruited 5 election directors to spearhead voting by phone in their counties. In April, local advocates and AAPD organized a vendor’s fair and MIT’s Ted Selker, world renowned expert in human factors (how people interact with machines), volunteered to help Oregon design the specifications for the State’s request for proposals.

For voters with disabilities, the testing of phone voting represents a significant step forward in privacy and access:
· Voters won’t have to make special arrangements for transportation back and forth from their polling place.
· Approximately 70% of the nation’s polling places are inaccessible—imagine the potential for barrier-free access as other states follow Oregon’s example.
· Voters who are out of town or unable to leave their homes can simply pick up the phone and vote.
· Voters won’t have to wait in line at the polling place.
· Voters will be able to vote independently, without a pollworker.

Voting by phone not only benefits people with disabilities, it also provides an accessible solution to people who are not fluent in written English and who have low levels of literacy. To be able to vote using a telephone represents privacy, security, and secrecy in the voting process, elements that are not always present when people with disabilities exercise their right to vote.

If you would like to see phone voting come to your state, go to, contact your Secretary of State, thank them for their efforts to make voting accessible, and encourage your Secretary of State to consider a phone voting test election. If you want accessible voting in your state, call your Secretary of State and elected representatives.

Angela Katsakis is the Disability Vote Project Coordinator for AAPD. If you’d like more information on telephone voting in your state, email her at or call 800-840-8844.

Article reprinted from AAPD News Spring 2005