Mike Corsini has relied on others to help him vote for more than two decades. Next month, he will roll his wheelchair into a voting booth and select his favored candidates through a touch-sensitive electronic screen — the first ballot he'll cast on his own since an injury rendered him a quadriplegic 28 years ago.
Corsini, 43, will be able to vote on an electronic voting machine configured specially for use by the blind and the disabled, allowing them access to voting in a completely private way — the first time such equipment has been available statewide.
Corsini, of Spanaway, has voted by mail in Pierce County for a decade. But even then he needed help because he can't grasp things in his hands. Now, all he'll need to do is press on the touch screen machine to register his vote.
"When you're a person with a disability and you need assistance you lose privacy," said Corsini, who has been paralyzed since a motorcycle accident at age 15.
"Getting it back is a real treat," he said.
Under new federal election requirements that took effect this year, all polling places must be handicapped accessible, and counties that have switched to vote by mail must have at least one electronic voting machine available for blind and disabled voters. At least 1,000 of these machines — offering different configurations for various disabilities — will be in use across the state.
Blind and disabled voters will be able to vote on the machines as early as Aug. 30.
While Snohomish and Yakima counties previously had electronic voting systems in place that provided many of the features of the disabled access units, state elections Director Nick Handy said all of the counties have newer versions that offer more functions — headsets for the visually impaired and systems for quadriplegics to be able to vote, including a system where they sip or blow into a straw to make their selection.
"Perhaps the most fundamental right in democracy is the right to vote and the right to vote privately," said David Lord, a staff attorney at the Seattle-based Washington Protection and Advocacy System, a statewide organization that provides advocacy for people with disabilities. "Every citizen should be able to vote privately. Now we have the ability to make that happen."
Disabled and visually impaired voters are among the few who may actually go to the polls to vote this primary.
Earlier this year, the state gave counties a green light to switch to all-mail voting. Before the new law, 70 percent of the state's registered voters had already cast their ballots by mail and several counties had already switched to running elections completely by mail.
But now, 34 of the state's 39 counties are officially vote-by-mail, and Secretary of State Sam Reed said he expects at least 80 percent of next months' ballots to be cast by mail. Even in counties that still retain polling places — including King and Pierce — most voters still are expected to vote by mail.
Handy said that in counties that are vote-by-mail, voters can still choose to vote on the disabled access machines, even if they are not disabled or blind. The counties will require that that voter be credited with voting at the time of using the disability access unit, and an absentee ballot sent later would be rejected.
Counties must send out more than 2 million absentee ballots by Sept. 1. They must be postmarked by Sept. 19.
Voters will also have to vote along party lines, after a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this week refused to reinstate Washington's "top two" primary system — where voters pick their favorite candidates for each office, regardless of party.
Reed said that even though voters have already had to vote by party in the 2004 election, many are still angry about it.
"The voters in the state of Washington have taken pride in being ticket splitters," he said.
Other changes are in store as well.
For voters in counties that still conduct poll-site voting, there will be a voter-verified paper trail for the electronic disability access machines. In some cases, voters will be able to see a printout of the ballot they have just cast, though they won't be able to take it with them. In others, the voter puts a paper ballot into the machine and then uses a touch screen to make choices. The machine then "marks" the ballot for the voter, who takes the completed ballot to the ballot box. Voters at the polls must also show some type of identification, either photo or an alternate, such as a utility bill.
This is also the last time that the primary will be held in September.
A new law that takes effect next year moves the primary forward a full month, from the third week in September to the third Tuesday in August.
Elections officials have long argued that the state's September primary, one of the latest in the country, has disenfranchised many military and overseas voters and hasn't allowed adequate turnaround time between the primary and general elections.
But for Jodie O'Flaherty, an employee at the Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind, the most significant change is her ability to go to the polls.
O'Flaherty has had congenital cataracts all of her life, but until last year, was able to fill out an absentee ballot with the help of a machine that projected the ballot onto a larger screen that she could read. A recent surgery to lessen pressure on her eyes left her completely blind.
She said that even though she's lost what's remained of her sight, she hasn't lost her independence on Election Day.
"I get the same opportunity for the same experience," she said. "This is one less arena where I feel excluded."
— The Associated Press