by Mark A. Riccobono
From the Editor: This op-ed is reprinted with permission from The Hill, April 16, 2021.
In his 1988 children’s novel “Matilda,” celebrated author Roald Dahl penned the line “Somewhere inside all of us is the power to change the world.” When applied to voting, this sentiment becomes doubly relevant. To have the power to change the world, we must first have the power to make our voices heard through a ballot. For many blind Americans, making our voice heard presents its own set of unique challenges. The For the People Act (S. 1), currently in the United States Senate, sets out to rectify some of these problems but misses the mark in a few critical areas.
In 2002, the Help America Vote Act was signed into law, requiring every polling location to have at least one accessible ballot-marking device. This was a great leap forward in accessible voting because these machines allow blind and print-disabled persons to complete their ballot privately and independently. However, with the resurgence of hand-marked paper ballots in recent years, a new problem has been created. Ballot-marking devices will frequently print a paper ballot that differs in both size and style from traditional hand-marked paper ballots used by the majority of voters. Because so few non-disabled voters use the ballot-marking devices, the distinguishable ballot produced by the machine prevents blind and other disabled voters from having a secret ballot. If officials can determine which bloc of voters a specific set of ballots came from, it becomes possible to discriminate against those voters; and if a particular polling location has only one or two disabled voters using the machine, those voters might as well sign their ballot. To ensure that blind and print-disabled voters can cast both a secret and independent ballot, it is essential that S. 1 be amended so that at least two ballot-marking devices are required in each polling place and that those ballot-marking devices are actively and specifically offered to voters without disabilities.
Furthermore, more Americans than ever before are choosing to vote by mail; therefore, it is essential that blind Americans not be excluded from this opportunity. In that regard, S. 1 must be amended to ensure that the process for requesting, completing, and submitting a vote-by-mail ballot is nonvisually accessible. In this regard, nothing in the bill should limit or alter a state’s obligations under Section 301(a)(3)(A) of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act as amended. This would ensure that Congress is preserving the accessibility requirements of these two landmark laws.
Ensuring the accessibility of in-person and vote-by-mail balloting will guarantee that blind Americans are able to exercise their right to vote in a safe and secure manner without having to wait in long lines and crowded areas for extended periods of time. It is essential to incorporate these two edits into the bill to guarantee that blind Americans have the same opportunity to vote privately, independently, and secretly that is provided to voters without disabilities. Without these amendments to the bill, Congress would be reversing decades of progress in voting rights for Americans with disabilities.
The National Federation of the Blind has conducted numerous blind voter surveys in order to establish a set of voting best practices. Additionally, we have worked to develop numerous innovations in this field over the past decades. We are fully prepared to help Congress in any way that we can in order to guarantee that all Americans, especially blind Americans, can confidently participate in our electoral democracy so that we too will be able to exercise our power to change the world.