Comments on Voting Accessibility Innovations in Elections: Making Voting Accessible for Everyone

Blog Date: 
Wednesday, May 14, 2014

By Mark A. Riccobono

Press Club—Washington, D.C.

May 14, 2014

The National Federation of the Blind was active in the development of the HAVA legislation specifically to get nonvisual access included as a requirement under the law. Since 2003, our organization has operated a Nonvisual Election Technology Project under a HAVA grant from the United States Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Community Living. The goal of our project is to increase the participation of blind voters in the elections process by providing training and technical assistance to protection and advocacy personnel, state and local elections officials, developers of accessible voting technology, and blind advocates.

During the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, we hosted an Election Day hotline and conducted post-election surveys to monitor progress under HAVA. We found that there are still many polling places that do not have even one accessible voting machine. Furthermore, many of the places that do have accessible machines are staffed by poll workers who do not know how to properly manage and troubleshoot the accessibility features of those machines. Our data shows that the percentage of blind voters who report being able to cast their ballot privately and independently with an accessible machine decreased from 86 percent to 75 percent. Our findings are consistent with barriers reported in the National Council on Disability’s October 2013 report detailing the “Experience of Voters with Disabilities in the 2012 Election Cycle.” These access barriers are further confounded by attempts to return to paper ballot systems under the poorly supported claim that paper is more secure. Many of the emerging debates about voting systems leave one wondering why some people think a segregated ballot for the disabled is the best we can do in twenty-first century America.

The National Federation of the Blind believes we can and must do better. Under our HAVA project we have spearheaded dialogue about methods for leveraging technology to expand access and preserve privacy. Recent examples of our efforts include establishing a mobile voting working group consisting of developers and users of online ballot marking systems, and exploring how voters who are deafblind might utilize their personal access devices with voting machines in a secure manner that would, for the first time, provide them with a truly private and independent voting experience.

My home state of Maryland is a great example of why simply being an eligible voter does not yet provide equal access to voting. The Maryland legislature extended online ballot delivery to all voters and commissioned the building of an online ballot-marking tool, to be made available to voters subject to certification by the State Board of Elections. Online ballot-marking systems allow the voter to mark their ballot online, and then print out the ballot for mailing. These systems, if designed properly, have the potential to permit even more voters with disabilities to vote privately and independently. We were encouraged by the fact that the Maryland State Board of Elections worked to thoughtfully design the ballot marking tool with accessibility in mind, including testing and refining the tool with the feedback of the National Federation of the Blind. The final online ballot-marking tool was a model for accessible absentee voting. However, last month the Maryland State Board of Elections failed to certify the ballot-marking tool based on far-fetched security and privacy issues. Those same opponents even attempted to suggest that the tool was not accessible to people with disabilities. Thus, Maryland currently discriminates against blind voters who need to vote absentee and who also assert their right to a private and independent vote.

I first voted privately and independently in 2004 and I am not willing to go back to a time where I was denied meaningful access to the same private and independent voting experience afforded to other citizens. Now is a critical time for us to advance the promise of the Help America Vote Act by creating more innovative solutions and strengthening the enforcement of our civil right to vote privately and independently. I appreciate the opportunity to participate in today’s forum, Innovations in Elections, because it acknowledges that accessibility to voting is not secondary to security, privacy, or any other issue. As we discuss advances that have been made and are still required in the future, we should not forget that the true innovation of our democracy will be realized through the establishment of voting systems that provide equal access to all eligible voters regardless of any other characteristics they possess.