Whenever I visit my local polling station with my guide dog, I have rarely encountered a voting experience not fraught with complications or miscommunication. While the federal Help America Vote Act, as a piece of legislation and then enacted public policy, elevated the conversation on elections for a while, a range of barriers still need to be addressed. Specifically, I struggle in understanding our bureaucratic resistance to revolutionizing voting through technology.
I have regularly encountered volunteer workers on Election Day who are certainly civic minded retirees yet unable seemingly to collaborate with a blind person in a functional way. They do not always know how to operate the audio description for the ballots.
I served as part of class-action litigation to require greater access to voting in Maryland. It resulted in audio description of the ballot via machines. While I applauded that improvement for myself and for others with disabilities, I felt the settlement impacted Marylanders well beyond disability. Certainly, the presence of a blind guy at a machine utilizing headphones indirectly educated as to the power of technology and inclusion. Equally, it enabled other populations, who may require modifications to the voting process, such as those with Low English Proficiency, to be empowered members of our republic.
Then legitimate, if overwrought, concerns about security eroded increased liberty, regressing most people back to a paper-based form of voting, less accessible to most. To all of our loss, non-disabled citizens are required once again to use this odd, paper-based Scantron system. If I were a sighted person like my wife, I might question if the 1990s-era SATs were back.
When we regressed away from e-based voting machines back to a process allegedly more secure for most voters in Maryland, organizations, such as the National Federation of the Blind, proved successful for a while in advocating that a limited number of non-disabled voters still had to utilize the e-based machines. This meant practically that anonymity was incorporated into the process. Now, however, only those with disabilities utilize the machines, apparently submitting a differently shaped ballot to a scanner in front of the public. That I was the sole person utilizing the machine worsened the lack of anonymity in that workers did not know how to best direct me as a dog handler. They inadequately described how to walk, like in “The Green Mile,” from the voting machine to the scanner.
As another example, the Board of Elections developed, in 2011 or so, a “online ballot-marking tool,”one eventually accessible to the blind or visually impaired. Citizens could utilize an online process to engage in absentee voting, print the ballot, then send it off to be tallied. The government – that is, the Board of Elections – failed to certify the process, thereby regressing to inaccessibility. This inane resistance resulted in litigation. I wonder if we can accept, nevertheless the Board of Elections accept, we are in the Digital Age.
In May 2014, the National Federation of the Blind and three individuals sued, alleging that this de-certification, which resulted in a lack of equal access, violated Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Another advocacy group, American Council of the Blind, intervened. The court permanently enjoined the defendants from the violation of these rights, requiring they make this tool available in all future elections, including in the 2014 election. The ruling was upheld by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which agreed that by effectively requiring disabled individuals to rely on the assistance of others to vote absentee, defendants have not provided plaintiffs with meaningful access to Maryland’s absentee voting program.
Besides resisting technology, it particularly disturbs me that any public entity would posit, according to the court’s ruling, that“plaintiffs have not been denied meaningful access to absentee voting because disabled individuals such as plaintiffs have no right to vote without assistance.” This shows the need for leaders with disabilities to be increasingly in the halls of power, such as at the Board of Elections.
In addition to physical and programmatic barriers, government officials should recognize the disabled are a powerful voting bloc. Two organizations in Maryland have attempted, or are attempting, to address this through nonpartisan efforts: the Maryland Disabilities Forum and the Respectability U.S.A. The Maryland Disabilities Forum hosts a nonpartisan candidates’ forum every four years where gubernatorial candidates are asked to lay out their plans for the disability community. It’s less a debate than an information-sharing session. This year, however, the campaigns of Gov. Larry Hogan and Ben Jealous seemingly ignored this bloc of voters by declining to participate. In the past, Respectability U.S.A. has surveyed various candidates in elections as to their views on disability elated issues.
When the dust settles next month, no matter who wins, accessible and fair voting should be a priority.
Gary C. Norman, Esq. LL.M. serves as the vice chair at the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights. He can be reached at [email protected].