The United States is facing one of the most consequential elections in its history. The left is attempting to unseat Donald Trump and gain a majority in the Senate amid a global pandemic that has upended every element of U.S. life and will surely send the world into an economic recession. Though disabled voters are as invested as nondisabled voters in making their voices heard at the polls, polling places aren’t as welcoming to disabled voters as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandates them to be. What’s more, proposed solutions to rampant voter suppression measures and questions about election integrity could actually make polling places even less accessible.
Rather than empowering disabled voters to come to the polls, it often seems as if election officials and politicians only care about the accessibility of polling places when they can use the ADA as a scapegoat to shut them down—as Georgia tried to do in Randolph County in 2018. This shutdown (and likely others) has unconfirmed undertones of more sinister means, namely voter suppression in a majority-Black area. Texas recently used a similar ploy, highlighting that the primary consideration is often whether a space is physically accessible for everyone and meets the Department of Justice’s polling place checklist. Unfortunately, it’s easy to close a polling place for being inaccessible because most of them are. According to a 2017 U.S. Government Accountability Office survey, just 17 percent of 178 selected polling places were fully accessible during that election.
Voters are often asked to traipse down stairs into church basements or carefully negotiate crowded classrooms that leave little maneuvering room for people in wheelchairs. Other times there’s no curb cut for someone to get on the sidewalk, doorways are too narrow for wheelchair users, or a private home with stairs and no accessible restroom serves as a caucus site. As a result, disabled voters are given the option of “curbside voting” if their disability doesn’t allow for them to enter the polling site, which is lauded for providing access to voting. However, what this actually looks like is disabled people hurriedly filling out their ballots on the trunks of their cars, using absentee ballots—even when they want to participate in public life by casting their votes at polling places, or just foregoing their vote.
While the Justice Department emphasizes the importance of physical accessibility, their guidelines don’t go far enough: A polling place may be physically accessible and still lack accessible voting equipment and technologies. There have been a series of lawsuits designed to address this issue, yet election officials have only made sparse changes to their voting equipment. There are a number of factors polling places must consider when attempting to make their machines more accessible. The first is to ensure the privacy afforded to all voters, therefore, disabled people must be able to use the equipment without assistance. A few things to consider are that disabled voters may lack hand dexterity and control, have limited vision, or have intellectual, developmental, and cognitive impairments that interact with their ability to read and mark the ballot.
Lack of accessibility can be a big problem in states like California, where there are lengthy ballots, and in cases where ballots are poorly designed—a perennial problem (as seen with Florida’s infamous butterfly ballot). The predominant voting methods available may not be accessible, regardless of whether people are voting with touchscreens, Scantron ballots, hand-marked paper ballots, or a range of other options. Currently, many precincts settle for an unacceptable workaround: Disabled voters are commonly relegated to “accessible” equipment that may not actually work for them, may be broken, or may be confusing for the poll workers who are supposed to provide instructions. Some use voting materials that are markedly different than those used with other equipment, making the ballots of disabled voters readily identifiable and violating their right to privacy. This is especially true in smaller precincts where it may be easy to single out a specific person who happens to be the only one using this different voting material, for example, a blind voter.
Some disabled people are especially concerned about certain advocates’ insistence on hand-marked paper ballots. Proponents argue that this method is the most secure, and creates a clear, auditable, and literal paper trail. They believe it’s a solution so perfect, in fact, that they want to codify it into law with H.R. 1, a groundbreaking election security and integrity law introduced by the 116th Congress and passed in the House, though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refuses to bring it to a floor vote in the Senate.
Disabled voters who’ve expressed concern surrounding their ability to fill out hand-marked ballots have been told exceptions will be made for them, but Juan Gilbert, an expert on accessible election technology at the University of Florida, says this may actually threaten election security. “You’ve actually weakened the security of an election by [segregating voters],” Gilbert said. “It’s very important to have universally designed tech for not only access but security.” Disabled people care a great deal about election security, so they’re well aware that hand-marked paper ballots will not resolve concerns about the integrity of U.S. elections. Instead, a nationwide transition to hand-marked paper ballots would come at the expense of disabled voters, and, ultimately, to elections themselves.
Michelle Bishop, a voting rights specialist at the National Disability Rights Network, put it more bluntly: “When you talk about exceptions for people with disabilities, what they’re really saying is ‘I don’t really think this thing is secure, but if these people need it, they can use it.’ You have defined this thing as risky and substandard, and you’re okay with a particular minority group using it.” In other words, the voting security of disabled voters is expendable in the broader pursuit of safe and secure elections. But, Gilbert explained, “hand-marked paper ballots are not as secure as people think they are: You can hack one with a pen, a lighter, or a trash can. And they only record what voters marked rather than their intentions.” In other words, if I mean to vote for bell hooks but a confusing ballot layout leads me to mark a vote for Anna May Wong instead, my “secure” paper ballot doesn’t actually reflect my vote.
Proposed solutions to rampant voter suppression measures and questions about election integrity could actually make polling places even less accessible.
There are secure, accessible technologies available and many of these devices are constantly improving. Variations on the ballot marking device, which allows people to use an offline and confidential interface to physically mark a ballot, are perhaps the most obvious. Ballot marking devices are accessible to people with a range of disabilities—and people like Gilbert are constantly redesigning them to reach more voters. Ballot marking devices come with an array of features that hand-marked paper ballots do not. For example, they can prevent overvotes (voting for both Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders in the primary) as well as undervotes (failing to record a vote for your preferred candidate in the general election). Ballot marking devices can prompt voters to make sure they complete the ballot and will provide a summary of the voter’s choices—and the final product is a physical, auditable ballot, not an electronic record.
Using a ballot marking device also means that all ballots, and their marks, are identical. It’s impossible to tell whose ballot is whose, which protects each voter’s right to anonymity. Asking every voter to use a ballot marking device has another advantage. It will also ensure that all voting equipment is maintained and in usable condition, by providing the same equipment to all voters. This is a stark contrast with the current mismatched reality in which accessible voting equipment is handled and treated separately—and badly. There should be no more weary discoveries that the one accessible voting machine is broken when all the voting machines are accessible, no more using voting equipment for storage, and no more mysteriously missing equipment. Any voter can use any machine, and that universality increases voter security and privacy.
Voting inaccessibility is an issue that will only intensify in coming years. One-sixth of the electorate is disabled. A quarter of the electorate is over the age of 65—and that number is going to rise. Older adults often face disability as they age, while others experience issues that can be alleviated with accessibility measures. The accessibility of the polls themselves, as well as the ways people vote, is vital. So is the security and accessibility of the equipment people use to cast their votes. Leaving the disability community out of conversations about improving elections in the United States is a tremendous loss, and one that will come back to haunt many of the young and spry people currently insisting on upholding inaccessible technologies in the name of security.