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January 12, 2023

Empowering Every Voter to Vote

Noah Austin

The PDF in which this article appears can be found in Bifocal Vol. 44 Issue 3.

Voting is an essential part of a healthy democracy, but people who  live with a disability may struggle to vote in person or without accommodations. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 and the Americans with Disabilities Act provide an important baseline for accommodations all states must follow, including requiring the availability of voting machines that allow individuals with disabilities to vote privately and independently and for polling locations to be accessible to those with mobility aids. However, the application and ease of access of these and additional accommodations can vary greatly between states. 

In many states, even where accommodations are theoretically available, information on the accommodations and how to access them can be confusing or difficult to find. Several states, including North Dakota, Tennessee, and Wyoming, make no mention of disability accommodations on their Secretary of State or elections websites. This requires disabled voters to reach out to election officials or to search through state statutes to learn what accommodations they are entitled to. Some states have unnecessarily confusing policies, such as Pennsylvania, with three different methods of applying for a vote by mail ballot with different yet overlapping requirements. Others, like Florida, defer most election-based policies to individual counties, meaning what accommodations are available will vary greatly within the state.

For those who struggle to travel to a polling place, mail-in ballots provide a less demanding method to vote. Although most states offer some version of a “permanent absentee voter” option, what this actually entails differs from state to state. The most widely available are in states that conduct elections entirely by mail, such as Oregon and Hawaii: everyone who is registered to vote is automatically mailed a ballot for every election, with no additional requirements. Those who wish to use an accessible ballot marking machine or have a poll worker assist in marking their ballot can travel to a vote center if they so choose. 

In other states, the requirements to register for permanent absentee voter status can be arguably more burdensome than simply voting in person. Alabama, for example, requires voters who wish to automatically receive mail in ballots to submit a form signed by their physician and also notarized. This form only lasts one year and must be resubmitted - with the physician’s signature and notarization - if the voter wishes to remain on the “permanent” absentee voter list for more than one year. Additionally, the form only covers state and federal elections, requiring voters to go through additional steps if they wish to receive mail-in ballots for municipal elections as well.

Another more accessible voting option that is gaining in popularity, particularly after the Covid-19 pandemic, is curbside voting. This option allows voters to remain in their car outside the polling place while they complete a ballot that is then handed to a poll worker to be counted. It removes many of the security concerns associated with other accessible voting methods, while still allowing individuals who would struggle to stand in line or navigate through the polling place to vote more easily. 

New technologies are also improving the availability and variety of accessibility accommodations. Many states will email an electronic ballot to voters with vision impairment, allowing them to mark their ballot with the help of a screen reader before printing and returning the ballot by mail. Without this option, voters with vision impairments would be required to vote in person using an accessible voting machine with an audio ballot, which may be hazardous for those with immunodeficiencies, particularly during a pandemic. Alternatively, voters in this situation could opt to have a friend or family member assist them in marking the ballot, which would force the voter to divulge who they voted for and compromise their right to privacy.

Utah County, Utah, is even running a pilot program that allows permanently or temporarily disabled individuals to vote from home through a smartphone app. While not yet a widespread option, this type of unique new voting method shows the innovations some locations are making to modernize voting systems and improve accessibility.

The accessibility of voting varies widely from state to state and even within each state, meaning Americans with disabilities in different areas will have vastly different experiences when voting.  While new accessibility options such as emailed ballots and curbside voting are becoming more widely available, some locations lag behind and have overly burdensome requirements to access accommodations like a permanent absentee ballot. Even when accommodations are available, outdated or missing information on government websites can prevent individuals from knowing what their options are. Federal requirements included in the Help America Vote Act and Americans With Disabilities Act provide a strong basis, but improvement is still needed. Individual states can and should provide more accommodations to improve voting accessibility.

For a state by state listing of information on voting accommodations, click here.

Noah Austin

American University

Noah Austin, a Sophomore at American University, researched voting rights and accommodations for individuals with disabilities and created a guide from this research.

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