Braille Monitor               January 2024

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Why Do Some Voting Advocates Fight Equal Access for the Blind?

by Mark Riccobono
Opinion contributor, The Hill - 10/27/23, reprinted with permission

Mark RiccobonoAmericans with disabilities are now the largest minority group in this country, yet when it comes to voting rights, we are treated as second-class citizens, excluded from the right to vote independently and privately in most states.

To make matters worse, groups like the Brennan Center for Justice, Common Cause, and Free Speech for People seem to want things to stay that way. These advocates claim to “uphold the values of democracy,” “empower all people to make their voices heard,” and fight for “free and fair elections.” You would expect them to be working to make voting more accessible for everyone. But, as the transformative membership and advocacy organization of blind Americans, the National Federation of the Blind, of which I serve as president, is deeply dismayed because these three groups and others have repeatedly done the exact opposite.

That’s why this past summer, our national convention, the supreme governing authority of our organization, took the unprecedented step of unanimously adopting a resolution calling on these groups to follow their own mission statements, to support secure methods for online ballot marking and return, and to stop blocking efforts to make voting more accessible for all.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted over three decades ago and requires that every voting option be accessible to voters with disabilities so that all voters can vote independently and privately, whether in person or by mail. Yet millions of voters like me and the members I represent still do not have the ability to do so.

In-person voting remains fraught with barriers. Transportation issues make getting to a polling place challenging, and many polling places continue to have barriers to equal access.

Once at a polling place, voters with disabilities often encounter poorly trained poll workers and malfunctioning accessible equipment, costing us time or, worse, forcing us to enlist strangers to help us vote, thereby violating our right to privacy and independence. Even if the equipment is working, these same groups question its security, calling it too insecure for other voters to use and suggesting that only voters with disabilities be allowed to use it. Ironically, this position implies that it is less important to protect the security and integrity of our ballots and effectively segregates us from other voters, which makes our ballots more vulnerable to attack. 

Voting by mail is also inaccessible in most states. Blind voters and others are unable to mark or handle paper ballots. As a result, we must rely on others to mark and return our ballots, giving us no privacy or independence and violating the rights afforded by the ADA.

It is unsurprising, then, that voters with disabilities vote at lower rates than other voting groups. Even in 2020, when turnout was the highest in over a century, voters with disabilities still had a seven-point turnout gap from voters without disabilities and were twice as likely to report difficulties voting. The gap has remained roughly the same over the last fifteen years. 

But there’s a proven fix to the barriers faced by blind voters and voters with other disabilities that prevent them from reading, marking, or handling printed ballots. Over a dozen states now offer fully accessible absentee voting with electronic ballot delivery and return, which enables us to vote independently and privately using our own assistive technology. These options are also utilized by military and overseas voters in over thirty states. 

Systems used for electronic ballot delivery and return have been rigorously tested, and cybersecurity experts have affirmed that they are secure. Research from the Federal Voting Assistance Program has even found that for some voters, electronic ballot return options like these are more secure than postal return. More recent research from the Government Blockchain Association found that systems that digitally protect ballots with encryption are much more secure than traditional paper absentee ballots. But in spite of the evidence—and the promise of even stronger technology in development—groups like the Brennan Center for Justice, Common Cause, and Free Speech for People have repeatedly worked to oppose legislation to offer those options in states including ColoradoMaryland, and Rhode Island. These efforts directly contradict the mission statements of these advocates and are wrapped up in misleading assertions and unfounded concerns about security.

Without accessible options, we must rely on another person—whether in the voting booth or at home with a mail-in ballot—to fill out our ballots for us. This violates our right to a secret ballot. After every election, the National Federation of the Blind hears from members that their loved ones or voting assistants incorrectly marked their ballots, sometimes deliberately.

Make no mistake. Election security is critically important. No voting method should force any voter to risk the integrity of their ballot, and no method should be vulnerable to hacking. But security and accessibility are not mutually exclusive.

It is time for voters with disabilities to be treated as first-class citizens and afforded full and equal voting rights. As blind people, we are working towards that goal. Who’s with us?

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