T.K. Small Discusses Voting Access on NY1

As the hangovers subside and people gradually get used to the fact that the last eight years of horrendous governance will be coming to an end shortly, I thought I would share with the BHB community my experience voting during this historic election. At some point during the day I commented on BHB that there were special voting machines for the disabled. In fact, these machines known as “Ballot Marking Devices” could be used by anyone and are probably the type of equipment that the Board of Elections will use in the future. Consequently, the story that is told below is something that might be of interest to anyone that is concerned about the democratic process, regardless of disability. The situation was so egregious that I was contacted by NY1 and the segment will appear this evening some time between 8-9 p.m (watch video).

November 4 narrative:

At approximately 12:20 I started the process to exercise my right to vote in what is arguably the most important election of my life. Although I was eventually able to cast an absentee ballot, it took almost 6 hours, two appearances before a Supreme Court Judge, and numerous frustrating interactions with a variety of Board of Elections employees at two different polling sites and at the Brooklyn Board of Elections headquarters, not to mention the 28 blocks of rolling around downtown Brooklyn in the drizzling rain.

After signing into the book at my originally designated polling site (116 AD, 52 ED) I was immediately directed to use the standard lever machine. The Ballot Marking Device (BMD) was not even offered as a possible alternative. I gently informed the poll workers that the BMD would be the only way that I would be able to cast my ballot privately and independently. It is very obvious that I am a person with a significant physical disability and I had to explain that I needed to use the “sip & puff” switch. Essentially these remarks were ignored and I was again directed to the lever machine. The excuse that I was given was that the printer was not working. However, since I was the first person that had asked about the machine, I am not certain how they could make such a statement. Again I was importuned to use the lever machine “if I wanted my vote to be counted.” After 10 to 15 minutes I left to call for legal advice.

I returned to my apartment and telephoned a friend that works for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest to discuss my options. He assisted in contacting the Board of Elections administrative offices and after a number of calls we eventually spoke with someone who expedited the dispatch of a technician to the Pierrepont Street polling site. Within the next hour, one of the poll workers knocked on my door and announced that the technician had arrived. Immediately I went downstairs at approximately 2:15 p.m. and attempted for the second time to vote. Unfortunately things did not go any better the second time around.

Again I informed the poll workers that I would need to use the “sip & puff” switch in order to be able to use the machine. This time there was a different poll worker who had returned from a break, but he was completely unfamiliar with the technology. The initial poll worker said “we were told that you would know how to use the equipment.” Naturally I thought that the BOE technician was there to assist. However, she seemed to be standing in the background and was not providing any help. When I suggested that the BOE technician should know how to use the equipment, she finally came forward. To my amazement she announced “I am only trained in how to plug it in and turn it on.” She maintained that she did not know anything about any of the accessibility features. Again the poll workers strongly urge me to use the inaccessible lever machines or cast a provisional ballot. By now it was 2:35 and I returned to my apartment to seek further legal advice.

During this series of telephone calls the previously mentioned Eleanor, from the Board of Elections called me to proudly announce that a technician had been dispatched. I explained to her again that my rights to vote independently and privately had been completely frustrated. My public interest lawyer friend informed me that there was a special judge assigned to resolve election matters who would be available at the Brooklyn BOE headquarters. At approximately 3:15 I left my apartment for 345 Adams St to seek judicial relief. In the meantime my frayed and contacted the Judge and explained my situation. The Judge quickly signed an order directing the BOE to allow me to vote on a Ballot Marking Device anywhere within the 52nd Election District.

Following the judge’s order, I spoke directly with Brooklyn BOE staff that were facilitating compliance with the order and explained that I wanted an assurance that there was a functioning machine with poll workers that actually knew how to use the equipment. They agreed that that was a fair request and went off to further confirm where I should go to vote. When the BOE staff member returned she specifically directed me to the Joralemon Street polling site. She provided a list of poll workers who allegedly had been trained on using the BMD. During these interactions with BOE I asked whether there was a BMD at the Brooklyn headquarters. She informed me that there was not one on the site at all. By now it was a few minutes after four o’clock and I headed to Joralemon Street to continue my struggle to vote.

When I arrived at the Joralemon Street polling site, I presented my order from the Judge. Quickly I realized that this attempt was also going to be fraught with difficulties. The poll worker had to read the order many times and repeatedly tried to direct me back to my original polling site at Pierrepont Street. Eventually another poll worker intervened and understood the order. After explaining to the other poll workers what needed to occur, he started to move the BMD so that I could approach the equipment. Although it was approaching 4:30 in the afternoon, my effort to use the BMD was the first at this poll site. I am confident that this was the first attempt to use the BMD because I witnessed that the package of sealed ballots had to have the plastic removed. The BMD was situated between two tables and facing the wall. Again, there was absolutely no way that a voter in a wheelchair could even get close to the machine. Next, the BMD needed to be moved and that caused the extension cord to become unplugged which caused a series of software and computer problems.

One of the few procedural steps that the poll worker was aware of was the need to use the sterile glove for the purposes of setting up the “sip & puff” mechanism. But even that turned into a keystone-poll-worker-routine. The worker and had no idea where the gloves were located and it took him 15 minutes just to find them. Once they were found, they became completely contaminated as he was scurrying around trying to figure out the system. All the while, former neighbors of mine were casting their ballots at the adjacent table and I felt that everyone was wondering what type of medical procedure was about to occur.

Eventually, another poll worker who was a little more comfortable with computer technology took more of a proactive/assertive role. This person was a little younger and by profession is a banker. Without having much training, he tried to get the system working. He realized that the BMD had become unplugged and required a software reboot. As we waited for more than 20 minutes, the first poll worker confessed almost proudly that he is a computer illiterate. Finally, we collectively quit after waiting for the BMD to reboot for approximately 25 minutes. It was at this time (5:15) that I decided to return to the Board of Elections seeking further relief from the Judge. Upon my return, the Judge greeted me warmly, expecting affirmative results. Apart from being sympathetic to my anger and frustration, and the Judge accepted my request for an order to have an absentee ballot provided by the BOE.

Throughout my entire experience voting on November 4, Board of Elections staff members continued to speak to my personal care worker, rather than directing comments and questions to me. As a person with a significant physical disability, being taken seriously is a constant struggle, despite my professional and educational background. At the very least, poll workers and BOE staff should be able to treat me with dignity and respect.

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  • http://www.susanodohertyauthor.com/ Sue O’D

    T.K., what a horrendous experience–but your perseverance and resourcefulness are awesome. No one should have to go through this indignity and frustration.

  • ChrisC

    TK – thank you for sharing your story — I am very interested to know more about this assistive technology – pardon my ignorance, but what is a “sip and puff” mechanism? How does it work?

  • TK Small

    Essentially it is a switch which is activated by either blowing or sucking air into a tube. For the most part, computers are controlled through a series of yes/no questions. With the proper programming of the software, an individual can make their selection of the computer screen with a simple puff of air. If the selection is incorrect, or the person changes their mind, there is a way to go back to an earlier screen by either puffing again or drawing air frome the tube. It is not exactly quick, but it gets the job done!

    If this answer is not clear, or you think of something else, please feel free to ask any more questions that you might have.

  • TK Small


    Sorry for not acknowledging your comments as well. It was not something that I planned or anticipated. In previous elections (at least 2) I have used a similar machine which worked much better. As the experience was unfolding, I kept thinking that I would be done in 15 minutes. When I realized that I had spent more than a few hours trying to vote, I did not want to just give up and waste that time. Also, the idea of governmental incompetence going unchecked is scary. I felt it was my civic duty to hold them accountable.

  • bornhere

    As I posted here last week (it seems like light years ago), my voting experience was uncommonly stress free; your story is a reminder to all of us that there are still “paths to disenfranchisement” that most of us probably cannot even imagine. Your perseverance is extraordinary and makes me feel almost unbearably self-absorbed for complaining about some of the things I can get really exercised about. But I do have a question: at the end of the NY1 piece, the reporter notes that your absentee ballot wasn’t counted on November 4. Are you reasonably confident that it was counted at all? And, is there any way to ensure that the BOE gets its act together so that voters requiring the use of a BMD will not be subjected to the insulting inconveniences you experienced? (And your comment about the impending “medical procedure” did make me smile.)

  • ChrisC

    T.K. – Thank you for explaining – that’s an amazing device — I’m fascinated by these advances in technology that go towards improving quality of life — now we just need to get the humans at the BOE up to speed! good luck, and again thank you for being so open about your experience in our neighborhood..

  • TK Small


    I am still trying to get the exact “Chapter & verse” with the answer as to when absentee ballots are counted. From my initial research, it seems that it is a combination of the election law state statute and local Board of elections procedures. In speaking with someone who is more expert in this area than me, he was of the opinion that it could be as much as seven days after the actual election. It was with these considerations in mind that I felt I had been effectively disenfranchised. Also, thank you for noting that my comment about the medical procedure made you smile. The world can always use a little more laughter! You should know that as I started to dictate this message, I found myself humming the tune to the movie “born free” as a substitute for “bornhere.”


    Thank you for appreciating my explanation. As they say, there is no such thing as a dumb question. I think it is far better to try to give people a different perspective which is based on facts, as opposed to people simply speculating in a void. I especially do not mind answering questions which kids might come up with. There have been times in the neighborhood when I overhear kids posing questions to their parents about my wheelchair or other related matters. Obviously the response of parents is a reflection of their views on disability and ranges from candid answers to shushing the kids up, which only promotes further curiosity. Especially for the little ones, I have no problem with trying to answer their questions. It is gradually through this type of dialogue that “disability” will eventually be seen as just another part of the human experience.