Co-authored with EAC Vice Chair Christy McCormick
As the 2018 Federal Election approaches, the importance of election security continues to shape headlines across the country and spark discussion about how to secure the vote. While every state and jurisdiction should consider security when selecting the election equipment and procedures that best serves their voters, they must remember that the law requires every American – including the more than 35 million Americans who have a disability – to have the opportunity to vote privately and independently.
This week, as we mark the twenty-eighth anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it is important to remember that election security cannot come at the expense of election accessibility.
Recently in Baltimore, we held a forum to hear in our capacity as Commissioners from members of the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) about their experiences at the polls. We also want to assure these Americans that the work to secure elections would not undermine their legal right to cast their ballot without assistance.
Voting accessibility has long been a priority for the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC), as well as for the election officials and voters we serve. The EAC was established in 2002 as part of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), legislation which built upon the disability protections enshrined in the ADA by outlining a clear mandate to ensure Americans with disabilities be given the same opportunity to vote freely and independently as other voters. It was the first time Congress set forth such a measure and it is one we must not ignore.
Nearly one-sixth of the total U.S. electorate has one of a broad range of disabilities, including mobility, communicative, physical and cognitive impairments. This ever-growing population of voters may also face educational, cultural and political barriers that could make participating in elections even more difficult. It is imperative that these men and women have a seat at the table as election officials make critical decisions about how they run elections.
The work to ensure accessible elections is not easy. We recognize that election officials with limited manpower and budgets may often feel they face a broad range of challenges that are in tension with the responsibility to provide accessible elections. The EAC works to help election officials navigate these obstacles through the distribution of resources, best practices, and federal funds.
For example, in March, Congress allocated $380 million in funds for states to improve the administration of elections for Federal office. All 55 eligible states and territories have applied for and are in the midst of drawing down these funds to pay for improvements to better serve their voters. Each state will determine how they spend these federal dollars, but some will certainly seek ways to improve election systems to make them more accessible and secure.
As they do, the EAC will serve as a trusted federal partner that can help identify procedures and practices that have a proven record of serving the needs of all voters, including priorities such as accessibility, security and efficiency. We can also connect election officials with accessibility experts and advocacy groups that stand ready to assist in the effort to help Americans vote.
Beyond the EAC’s convening power and our administration of federal funding, the Commission uses its voluntary testing and certification of election systems, its creation of resources such as voting rights cards in Braille and large print, and its effort to identify and lift up innovative approaches and best practices to serve American voters who need assistance at the polls. The EAC has also contributed funds to develop new innovations, such as Prime III, which includes for example a remote ballot marking system, to expand accessibility for voters with disabilities.
The recent gathering in Baltimore is just one stop in our ongoing journey across the country to directly engage with election officials and voters. These conversations not only shape the creation of new EAC resources, but provide forums for us to dispel myths such as the false choice between security and accessibility. We also encourage voters with disabilities to get involved in the election process beyond registering and casting a ballot, such as becoming a poll worker.
Ensuring the rights of voters with disabilities isn’t a choice, nor is it a partisan issue. It’s the law. We can never forget that as we work to improve elections.