The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 established a clear mandate to ensure that Americans with disabilities be given the same opportunity to vote freely and independently as other voters. The bill contains landmark provisions requiring the secure, private and independent casting of ballots for voters with disabilities.
Commissioner Thomas Hicks, Chairman of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) says, “The Help America Vote Act was the first time those with disabilities were legislatively assured the right to cast their ballots independently and privately.”
There are more than 35 million Americans with disabilities, ranging from mobility to communicative, physical and cognitive impairments. That’s roughly one-sixth of the total electorate. That’s a lot of voters. Many states are taking significant steps to improve the accessibility for all voters, no matter their capabilities.
In California, approximately 3.5 million disabled voters participate in each election. To ensure access for these voters, the Secretary of State’s office has created a Voting Accessibility Advisory Committee (VAAC) to make recommendations for improving access to voting and election materials. The VAAC advises, assists and provides recommendations as to how voters with disabilities can vote independently and privately. The committee has been influential in assisting with numerous projects, including the production of Polling Place Accessibility Guidelines. They have also helped raise awareness of disability issues through their involvement in the development of the Voter Accessibility Survey and production of the Polling Place Accessibility Surveyor Training Videos. In addition, they have created a video called “Your Vote Matters” to educate disabled voters on their various options for voting and their rights.
Maryland is committed to making voting accessible to all voters. According to the Board of Elections website, almost all polling places are accessible to voters with disabilities on Election Day and all of the early voting centers are accessible. Voters can find out in advance if their polling place is accessible, and if not, find out the reason by using the voter look-up website. If the voter determines their polling place is not accessible, they can vote at an early voting center; request a change in polling location or vote absentee. If an absentee ballot is preferred, Maryland offers an online tool to help the voter mark the ballot. This tool allows most voters to mark their ballots without help. Ballot marking devices are at early voting centers and polling places, which provide a headset and keypad. Voters can also use the high contrast and large print functions and sip and puff can be plugged into the machine.
Jim Dickson, co-chair of the Voting Rights Committee of The National Council on Independent Living ncil.org, says voter registration and turnout of people with disabilities has increased over the past 20 years. “We have almost closed the voter registration gap and the voter participation gap has been reduced significantly, but it still exists. Efforts, such as those in California and Maryland show the great work many states are doing to address the barriers to voting.”
Prior to the passage of HAVA, it was not required to have equipment that was fully accessible in each voting precinct. Today, each precinct must have one voting machine that is fully accessible. Voting systems have advanced since the passage of HAVA.
“The ballot marking devices are a huge improvement over the first accessible voting machines,” says Dickson. He notes that technology changes constantly and there is a need for ongoing research and development on accessibility to keep up with the changes.
“But in spite of these advances, we still have challenges. After each election, we still get reports from voters with disabilities of being inappropriately accommodated by poll workers,” says Dickson. “Examples include election workers asking if they can fill the ballot out for someone; election workers who don’t know how to work the voting machine or machines that are not working. After this many years, this is no longer acceptable. There is a clear lack of election worker training and accountability in some areas.”
Election worker training is critical to access. There is a lot for election workers to learn in preparation for Election Day, and knowing how to work with the disabled community is critical.
El Paso County, Colorado addressed this gap in awareness and resources by partnering with The Independence Center, a local nonprofit dedicated to supporting independent living for the disabled community. Through this partnership, they provided disability etiquette training to over 200 election judges and hosted an open house so people could practice on accessible voting machines prior to the 2016 elections.
Many states are moving to vote-by-mail. For some, such as those with mobility issues, that can make voting easier. But for others, it could make it more difficult to vote. For instance, a blind voter would need someone to read the ballot and mark it for them, violating the provision of HAVA that requires all voters to be able to vote independently and privately.
“In vote-by-mail states, there still should be an option to vote in person and have access to a voting machine with adaptive technology to provide the voter, no matter their disability, with the ability to vote privately and independently,” says Hicks.
All voters should also understand their rights. The EAC has created “Your Federal Voting Rights Card” that outlines the rights of voters with disabilities. This handy pocket guide provides all the information needed for an accessible voting experience.
EAC has made outreach to the disabled community a high priority. Commission Hicks believes its critical for EAC to engage with the disabled community to learn about the issues those with disabilities are facing.
“We want to make sure that we do all we can to ensure that everyone who is eligible to vote can cast their ballot. Through the creative use of HAVA funds, states can ensure that their elections are both more accessible and secure.”