With the recent American election, the rules and regulations surrounding voting has been a hot topic. While a lot of media outlets and individuals are most interested in discussing topics surrounding votes one big subject is often neglected – voters with disabilities.

There’s an incredible perspective piece on this issue, and I whole-heartedly encourage you to read it even before you read the rest of this post. So read Blind, but entitled to cast a ballot and I’ll catch you back here when you’re done reading it.

It’s a Big Problem

Ok, so what did you learn from the article? Hopefully, you found out that while there are a lot of seemingly nice regulations in place, they don’t actually work the way they should. As author Beth Finke explains, “…in many places, blind people can’t choose candidates on their own.

The systems may work in theory, but they don’t in practice.”[1] It’s really a nice gesture that there is legislation in place that will give voters access to the technology they need, but gestures don’t equal true progress.

Finke continues by explaining that even though the technology was supposed to be there to allow her accessible voting, the system failed, “When I arrived at the polling station in 2008, the technology was in place but no one could operate it.

There’d been no training of staff in the sequences needed — enabling the software, activating the audio, even finding the headphones that ensure privacy of selection.”[2] If you put a flight attendant at the controls of the plane without training, will they be able to fly it? Just because people work in a polling place doesn’t magically give them the ability to flawlessly work all of the technology that exists in the location. They need training!

What Laws Are Supposed to Protect Us?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) website, disabled voters are supposed to be protected by the following legislation,

  1. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
  2. Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA)
  3. Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984 (VAEHA)
  4. National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA)
  5. Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA)

That’s five Acts that are supposed to help us out when we go to vote! The North Carolina State Board of Elections explains what accessibility modifications voting locations need to provide, “Both federal law and state requirements mandate that voting systems be equipped for voters with disabilities, which allows such voters to have the same opportunity for access and participation as non-disabled voters have. It is required that every precinct must have at least one accessible voting machine available for use by voters with special needs.”[3]

Ok, let’s stop there for a second. This means that the voting machine needs to be available, but it does not specify that there needs to be any training provided to the people who work at the polling station. Maybe deep within the legislation there are regulations, but more than likely the regulations probably take the necessary training for granted.

Think about it, you would probably presume that if an accessible voting machine is installed it would be functional right out of the gate, right? I think a lot of people would forget that this machine is unique, and will require different training in order to make sure it runs correctly on election day. And this is sadly what Finke found to be true. She was ready to vote and the equipment existed, but the follow-through just did not exist, and therefore she was prevented from getting an authentic voter experience.

What Equipment Exists?

The North Carolina State Board of Elections website also explains the types of voting machines that are available and should be accessible for users,

 “Direct Record Electronic (DRE) touchscreen voting machines offered audio cue capacity for visually impaired that allows the machine to mark the electronic ballot based upon the voter’s instructions. The DRE machine will also produce an oral report to the voter as the choices selected prior to the voter casting the ballot.

Optical Scan voting systems where marked paper ballots are submitted into a tabulator by the voter can use paper ballots marked for the voter by AutoMark marking devices that also use audio cue capacity for visually impaired. The AutoMark also has a feature that will greatly magnify the ballot for voters that have limited visual impairment… The AutoMark will also produce an oral report to the voter as the choices selected prior to the voter casting the ballot.”[4]

Those machines sound great, right? Yeah, it would be nice if they functioned the way they are supposed to, so that voters can confidently cast their own ballot and exercise their constitutional right to vote. Unfortunately, apparently it just is not always the case.

What Can I Do?

If you want to ensure that your voting rights are protected, there are a few things you can do to vote in-person:

  1. Learn what the ADA regulations are for polling places – You can review the regulations by visiting the ADA Checklist for Polling Places webpage. They lay out the standards for polling locations in pretty plain English, so you will be able to find the information you need easily. Seriously, I was pretty surprised about how helpful this site is. You can even do a page search on your browser for a keyword like “ramps” and find all of the solutions that polling places should have in place for voters who require ramp accessibility.
  2. Bring along the ADA’s handy Polling Place Accessibility Checklist – Ok, maybe the checklist is intended to be used by the people working at the polling place to make sure they comply. But it can’t hurt to be informed! Also, it’ll give you some ideas about what types of accommodations you should expect when you go to vote.
  3. Report the issue to people who can help – Again, the ADA has you covered, “To report complaints of possible violations of the federal voting rights laws, you may contact the Voting Section:   www.justice.gov/crt/about/vot/misc/contact.php. You can contact the Voting Section though our toll free number (800-253-3931) or our email address (voting.section@usdoj.gov).” While I can’t guarantee that action will be taken because I have never encountered voting issues, I do think these problems should be reported.

Voting Is Your Right

If you are in America, you should be able to vote freely and without barriers. It’s one of the wonderful rights that is afforded to every person in the US, and I hope that the accessibility in voting becomes the norm. I’m thankful that Beth Finke spoke up about the huge gap that exists between the regulations in place and the actual reality of the situation.

We need to be aware of these injustices so that we can give them a voice and try to correct them. It all starts with awareness, so get out there and figure out where the laws need to be enforced and help to make polling places in your community more accessible for the next election!

[1] http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/beth-finke-blind-entitled-cast-ballot-article-1.2849580

[2] http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/beth-finke-blind-entitled-cast-ballot-article-1.2849580

[3] https://www.ncsbe.gov/voting-accessibility

[4] https://www.ncsbe.gov/voting-accessibility