The right of blind Americans to vote is guaranteed by the United States Constitution. It is a right that many American citizens have demonstrated, fought, and died for so that present and future generations can continue to exercise their right to vote. Therefore, every blind or low-vision citizen who is of voting age has a responsibility to exercise the right to vote.
Voting in any election, local or national, provides blind and low-vision citizens with the opportunity to voice their opinion about elected leaders and policies, and to help shape the future by electing candidates who share their views. Elected officials make decisions and pass legislation that impact how Braille is taught in the classroom, the accessibility of technology used in an educational setting, and funding of rehabilitation training. Consequently, voting for candidates who share their views on these issues is one of the most effective ways that blind and low-vision young people who are eligible to vote can influence policy and legislation addressing these issues.
When a citizen does not vote, they are giving away their right to influence our government and, as a result, government by the will of the majority is replaced with government by the will of the minority. Voter turnout among US voters age eighteen to twenty-four that has historically been very low. Only 46 percent of voters in that age group voted in the presidential election of 2016, and the percentage increased only slightly to 51 percent, the lowest turnout reported for all age groups, in 2020. It is vital that blind and low-vision Americans of voting age exercise their right to vote so that government by the will of the majority is assured.
Your Right to Vote Privately and Independently
Prior to the passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002, voters who were blind or low vision had to rely on sighted assistance to mark their ballot. HAVA has enabled voters with disabilities to fully exercise the fundamental right to vote privately and independently by requiring that every polling place have at least one accessible voting system for all federal elections. In addition, many states have enacted legislation to require at least one accessible voting system in each polling place for all state and local elections.
In recent cases, brought by the National Federation of the Blind, involving the right of voters with print disabilities to mark a paper absentee or by mail ballot privately and independently, the Federal Courts of Appeals for the Fourth and Sixth Circuits found that Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that voters with disabilities must be provided an opportunity to exercise their right to vote-by-mail that is equal to the opportunity provided voters without disabilities. This means that blind, low vision, and other voters with print disabilities must be able to mark their absentee ballot privately and independently at home as voters without disabilities are able to do. In addition, cases brought in Massachusetts in 2020, and in North Carolina in 2021 found that when a state permitted military and overseas voters to return their marked ballot electronically, voters with print disabilities must be afforded the same opportunity. Also, a number of states have passed legislation to permit voters with disabilities to receive and return their by mail ballots electronically.
Registering to Vote
In order to exercise the right to vote, a blind or low-vision citizen must first register with their state or district board of elections. To register as a voter, you must:
- be a United States citizen,
- be a resident of the state or district in which you are registering, and
- be at least eighteen years old.
Many states have additional requirements that must also be met.
Registration forms can be obtained from your state, district or local board of elections, libraries, and government offices. In addition, many states provide online voter registration through the Secretary of State's or state board of elections' website. Registering only takes a few minutes, so be sure to exercise your right and responsibility as a citizen by registering to vote, and voting!
How Does a Blind Person Vote?
Blind and low vision voters may cast their ballot at their local polling place on Election Day, by voting at an early voting center, or completing an absentee/by-mail ballot prior to Election Day. Most of the accessible voting systems in use today at the polling place or early voting center use a touch screen where voters can view the ballot and make selections. They also include an audio ballot, as well as large print and other low vision features to enable blind and low vision voters to vote privately and independently. These systems are designed to be easy to use, so no need to worry if you are not a techie! Visit the voting resources webpage on the National Federation of the Blind website for videos demonstrating the accessibility features of the most commonly used accessible voting systems.
The speech of the audio ballot may be either synthesized or a recorded human voice. Headphones are connected to the voting system so that only the voter can hear the ballot. A user interface with buttons or a telephone style keypad is used by the voter to go through the ballot contests and make selections, as well as to increase or decrease the speed and volume of the audio. Instructions at the beginning of the ballot tell you what buttons to push to move through the ballot and make selections. Voters with low vision can enlarge the print displayed on the touch screen and change the contrast to make the print easier to read. Voters with low vision make their selections simply by touching the screen.
Before Election Day arrives, it is always a good idea to take an opportunity to practice voting, particularly if you are a first-time or new voter. Invite a representative from your local board of elections to a meeting of your local NFB chapter or to your school to demonstrate the accessible voting machine and allow voters to practice voting. This way, when Election Day arrives, you will be able to concentrate on making your selections without being distracted by trying to figure out how to operate the voting system.
All states offer voters an absentee or vote by mail option. The rules regarding who can vote absentee or by mail vary by state. Some states permit all voters to vote by mail, while some states require that a voter have an excuse, such as being out of town on election day, to vote absentee. In general, state election law permits blind and low vision voters to vote in any election by absentee ballot.
Historically, voting by mail for a blind voter has consisted of receiving a paper ballot in the mail, and then relying on a sighted assistant to mark the ballot. Consequently, voting by absentee ballot is usually neither a private nor an independent way to vote for many blind and low vision voters. However, the absentee or by mail voting program offered by states must comply with Title II of the ADA, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and states must provide an accessible vote-by-mail system for all elections that enables blind and low vision voters to mark and return their by mail ballot privately and independently using their own access technology. Accessible vote-by-mail systems typically consist of a web portal that complies with Level AA of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). Once the ballot has been marked, it can be either printed and mailed to the local board of elections, or in some states, returned electronically to the local elections office, where it is printed and counted. Check with your state or local board of elections to find out if accessible vote-by-mail is available to voters with disabilities in your state.
A survey conducted by the National Federation of the Blind following the November 8, 2022, midterm election indicates that blind voters are exercising their right to cast a private and independent ballot. Out of 405 survey participants, 77 percent indicated they cast their vote at the polls, and 23 percent indicated they cast their vote through an absentee or by mail ballot.
What to Expect at Your Polling Place
If you are voting on Election Day, you will need to go to the polling place for your election district or precinct. The location of your polling place will be indicated on your voter registration card. You may also be able to find your polling place location on the website of your local or state board of elections.
Once you have arrived at your polling place, you will need to check in with poll workers by giving your name and requesting an accessible voting system. If you live in a state that requires some form of photo identification, you will need to show an acceptable form of identification to the poll worker who checks you in. Once you have given your name and shown your identification, be sure to repeat your request to use an accessible voting system. After your check in process is complete, a poll worker will show you where the accessible voting system is located and hand you the headphones and control box. Depending on the type of machine, you may need to insert a paper ballot. Once the audio ballot has started, the poll worker should walk away so you can vote in private.
What to Do When Things go Wrong
Poll workers have many responsibilities on Election Day. In addition, the training they receive on the accessible voting system is frequently insufficient to equip them with the knowledge they need to set up and operate the system, and to resolve any problems that may occur. Consequently, it is not uncommon for blind and low vision voters to encounter poll workers who do not know how to set up or operate the accessible voting system.
If upon your arrival at the polling place for a federal election poll workers tell you that the accessible voting system is not available or not working, or if the system malfunctions while you are voting, it is extremely important that you politely, but firmly, insist on your right to vote privately and independently. Request that an accessible system be brought to the polling place, or that a technician be sent to the polling place to repair the system. If poll workers offer to assist you in marking a paper ballot, politely decline this offer, and firmly, but politely, repeat your desire to vote privately and independently using an accessible system.
In many cases when a voter is patient and politely, but firmly, insists on their right to vote using an accessible system, poll workers are able to resolve the problem. However, if poll workers have made every attempt to honor your request, but are unable to provide an accessible voting system that operates properly, you should still exercise your right to vote by voting with assistance.
If you are unable to vote privately and independently on an accessible voting system at your polling place during a federal election because there is no accessible system available or the system is not operating, the most important thing you can do is to file a HAVA complaint with your state or local board of elections. While HAVA guarantees the right of blind and low-vision voters to vote privately and independently, it does not provide them a means to enforce this right through private action when it is violated. Therefore, filing a HAVA complaint is the most effective way blind voters can be sure that problems are brought to the attention of election officials and the U.S. Department of Justice, which has authority to enforce HAVA. Advocates at your state protection and advocacy agency may be able to assist you with the filing of a complaint.
Make Your Voice Heard
The United States Constitution guarantees the right of all blind and low-vision citizens to vote and the exercise of this right is vital to the function of our democratic form of government. With the passage of HAVA, it is now possible for blind and low-vision citizens to exercise their right to vote both privately and independently. Making your voice heard through voting is imperative because state and federal elected officials implement policies and pass legislation that directly affect our lives as blind or low-vision people. Make your voice heard - register to vote and exercise your right and responsibility to vote!