SALEM, Ore. -- Oregon was first in the nation to have all residents vote by mail. Now it's pioneering another idea: vote by iPad.
Voters in five counties are filling out and returning their mail-in ballots for a Tuesday special primary election to replace former U.S. Rep. David Wu, who resigned following a sex scandal. A handful will mark their ballots not with a pen but with the tip of their finger.
It's the latest attempt at using new technology to help voters with disabilities cast ballots privately.
Armed with iPads and portable printers, county election workers are going to parks, nursing homes, community centers and anywhere else they might find groups of voters who have trouble filling out traditional paper ballots.
Using the iPad, disabled voters can call up the right ballot and tap the screen to pick a candidate, with or without the help of election workers. The voters then print the completed ballot and stuff it in an envelope to sign, take with them and drop in the mail or an official ballot box.
Voters with poor vision can adjust the font size and screen colors, or they can have the iPad read them the candidates' names and even the voter pamphlet. A voter with limited mobility could attach a "sip-and-puff" device to control the screen. Lewis Crews, 75, who has severe arthritis, didn't have to hold a pen to fill out his ballot.
"It's a lot simpler for me. I think it's a great setup they got," Crews told The Associated Press last week in a phone interview after he filled out and printed one of the first-ever iPad ballots.
Elections officials helped Crews operate the iPad, he said, "but now that I've seen how it works, I'm confident I can do it on my own."
State elections officials say they'll use the same system in the special general election in January. And if the pilot project is successful, they'll make the service available across the state. They believe Oregon is the first state to try using iPads to mark ballots.
Oregon officials decided to try iPads because their other equipment for helping disabled people vote is nearing the end of its life. The old tools, including laptops with various accessibility modifications, were hauled around in two suitcases and were difficult for election workers to set up.
About 800 voters used it in 2010, according to the secretary of state's office.
Officials hope the iPad's portability, simplicity and relatively low cost will make it easier to deploy to more places and reach more voters. People with their own accessibility tools like joysticks and paddles can connect them using Bluetooth wireless technology.
"Some people want to vote independently, and they're the ones that we're talking to," said Steve Trout, state elections director. "Others just want someone to help them, and that's fine, too."
Apple Inc., which makes the iPad, has donated five of the devices for the experiment, and the state spent about $75,000 to develop the software. Oregon would need at least 72 iPads, two per county, to bring the program statewide, Trout said.
At $500 each, the state could buy the iPads for about $36,000. Portable printers cost about $50 each, Trout said, or counties can use existing printers from their offices. The cost of software is still unknown.
In the last two-year budget cycle, Oregon spent more than $325,000 to maintain accessible voting tools.
Elections officials emphasize that, technically speaking, nobody is voting by iPad. Rather, they're using the device to mark a ballot that's dispensed from a portable printer and mailed to elections offices for counting, just a like a hand-marked ballot.
Federal law requires that people with disabilities have the same opportunity for access and participation in the voting process, including privacy and independence. That means polling places have to be accessible, and elections officials have to make accessible voting equipment available.
Curt Decker, director of the National Disability Rights Network, a Washington-based lobby group, said he's concerned that Oregon's iPad plan still relies on a paper ballot. Visually-impaired voters won't be able to tell if the printout matches their selections. Elections officials say the iPad can read back the voters' selections before the ballot is printed.
"Any time you start using paper, then people who are blind can't see it, and they would then need assistance. That's what we're trying to get away from." Decker said. "People with disabilities should be able to vote independently and privately. That is our goal."