Braille Monitor                  October 2021

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Transformative Leadership in Partnership with the Blind: Colorado Raises Expectations for All Blind Americans

by Jena Griswold

From the Editor: Right now there is tremendous debate in our country over the issue of voting and security. While some are sure fraud is rampant and we must protect against it, others are actively looking for ways to increase turnout and at new technology that will see that every person eligible to vote has a good chance to do it. This presentation is an example of someone enthusiastic about helping blind people vote. Here are some of the remarks used to introduce her by President Riccobono:

President Riccobono: You heard Eve Hill talk about Colorado raising expectations for all blind Americans by enacting a law which we heard in the roll call. It's also been repeated in Hawaii. Our next presenter has the distinction of being the thirty-ninth secretary of state for the great state of Colorado and also the youngest secretary of state currently in the nation. She's bringing new perspectives to the work in Colorado, and she has demonstrated herself as a true champion for equality for the blind through her work to offer electronic delivery of voting and now in Colorado with electronic returns. So, here for some remarks about leadership for the rest of the nation to pay attention to is Colorado Secretary of State, from Louisville, Colorado, Jena Griswold.

(“Colorado Rocky Mountain High” by John Denver plays before her remarks).

Jena Griswold: Good afternoon. Thank you for having me here. I'm Jena Griswold, Colorado's secretary of state, and the song you just played is right on point. We're actually in the Rocky Mountains now, breathing the fresh air, and just so happy to join you.

Thank you, President Riccobono and everyone at the National Federation of the Blind for having me. In Colorado, we're so fortunate to work with Scott LaBarre and his team, including Dan Burke and Curtis Chong. It's an honor to be speaking with you at your eighty-first annual convention.

As Colorado's secretary of state, my office oversees all statewide elections, making sure all of our sixty-four county clerks are working in concert to make sure Colorado's elections are secure and smoothly run.

Colorado is continually among the nation's leaders in voter registration and turnout. In last November's general election in the midst of the pandemic, over 3.2 million Coloradans cast a ballot, more than in any election ever before in state history. Our turnout rate among active, registered voters was an impressive 86.5 percent. While 2020 was a continuation of excellent voter turnout in the state, it's not by coincidence. The fact of the matter is that we work hard to make sure voting is as easy as it can be. I'm proud that Colorado's election model is the nation's gold standard. We utilize vote-by-mail for all, in which every registered voter is mailed a ballot which they can return by mail or in any of our nearly four hundred drop boxes throughout the state, and 94 percent of voters choose to vote through mail ballot. We have early voting, where most voting centers open two weeks before an election. We have automatic voter registration and same day registration, enabling eligible voters to register and vote even on Election Day.

This hybrid of voting by mail and early in-person voting really comes down to one key simple tenet: Access. Colorado's elections are the nation's gold standards because we're able to provide voters with various methods by which to cast their ballots while maintaining security, and when voters know that casting a ballot is secure and easy, they will enthusiastically participate.

But access means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and in Colorado we work hard to make sure that every eligible voter has an equal opportunity to participate in our democracy. I'm proud that, by working closely with the National Federation of the Blind, Colorado continues to set the standard in voting for Americans with no to low eyesight. Just this past legislative session, the state legislature passed the Ballot Access to Voters with Disabilities bill, a collaborative effort with the NFB chapter in Colorado and State Senator Jessie Danielson that uses technology to revolutionize voting for Americans with low to no eyesight.

Starting back in 2019, blind, visually impaired, and voters with a qualified disability were able to receive a ballot electronically. The problem was, after receiving their ballot, voters had to print it out, vote, sign it, and physically return it to the county clerk. This latest legislation removes that additional hurdle of physically returning the ballot by allowing those specific voters who are blind, visually impaired, or otherwise unable to manipulate their ballot to vote and return their ballot using similar methods that our military overseas currently uses.

While we steadfastly protect election access, we're equally protective of election security. We're unquestionably committed to security. Thanks to the measures that we have in place, Colorado has been recognized by the Department of Homeland Security and the Washington Post as the safest state in which to cast a ballot today. Colorado overwhelmingly uses a voter-verified paper ballot. None of our voting equipment is connected to the internet, and after every election, we conduct a risk-limiting audit which proves to a high statistical degree of certainty that the results of the election are correct. What increases the security of electronic ballots is the fact that we use a secure transfer portal which is encrypted. This is similar technology that allows military voters stationed overseas and American voters living in other countries to have their voices heard, and now it's another way that blind voters can have their voices heard as well.

Our commitment to access also extends to the technology we've developed to make voting easier, and once again, the NFB has been an essential partner. This last fall, we implemented ballot-tracking capability statewide, which informs voters via text or email of the status of their ballot from when they're mailed to when they're received by the county clerk. The results after one election were extraordinary, with over 1.7 million voters using the system to track their ballot. That's 53.8 percent of all ballots returned. We're currently working with the NFB Colorado chapter to make the system work even better by optimizing mobile accessibility features. Tracking ballots is an invaluable way to add transparency to elections by removing all doubt that a voter's ballot has been received.

Colorado has also implemented a mechanism by which voters can address signature discrepancies via their cell phone called TextSecure. In a vote-by-mail system, a voter's signature is what the clerks and election judges tend to use to prove that a ballot belongs to the right person. If a signature on a ballot doesn't match a signature on file for that voter, the voter is given a chance to fix the discrepancy before the vote is not counted. TextSecure gives voters the opportunity to easily and conveniently fix those signature issues by making sure our voices are heard. In the last election, 11,085 ballots that otherwise would not have been counted were cured or fixed by voters using this new technology. We consulted with the NFB in Colorado in developing this feature and continue to work to improve it to suit the needs of blind voters.

The NFB plays an important role in how we conduct in-person voting as well. Colorado has solicited and received important feedback on accessible voting devices, feedback that has in turn been forwarded to our voting-system developers and implemented in elections. These voting-system developers can take what they learn from Colorado and implement changes nationwide, improving accessibility for blind voters from coast to coast. What we achieve together in Colorado truly has an impact that makes tangible improvements for voters nationwide.

Colorado also has a voter accessibility independence and privacy task force comprised of local and national disability advocates that keeps us improving and making sure we have elections that work for everyone. The National Federation of the Blind is a leader on this task force, and their input into our elections is a key reason that we can call ourselves the nation's gold standard.

Benjamin Franklin once said without continuous growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning. Any success we've enjoyed up to this very day is stagnant if we refuse to build on it, and if there's one thing we've learned during the past year, it's that one of the greatest risks to democracy is complacency.

As Colorado's chief election official, I'm committed to creating an election model for all the people, but to make sure that we are reaching for that more perfect union, we need every state to ensure that all eligible people, regardless of zip code, color of skin, or ability have access to free and fair elections. That is where you all come in. I urge you to reach out to your state's election officials, and if they aren't already in place, urge them to adopt vote-by-mail for all, early voting, accessible drop boxes in voting centers, same day and automatic voter registration, and accessible elections for all Americans. Democracy is only as strong as our ability to participate in it, and together we can build a democracy that works for all Americans.

Thank you for your work and continued partnership, and thank you again for having me today.

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