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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

Access to the Absentee Voting Process: The Need for Accessible Electronic Ballot Delivery Systems

By Kenia Flores, NCIL Summer Policy Intern

Photo of Kenia Flores
Photo of Kenia Flores

Voting is one of our fundamental rights as citizens of the United States, and it is an essential element to our democratic framework of government. However, many individuals, particularly those belonging to marginalized groups, are often denied the right to vote.

Most eighteen-year-olds anticipate their eighteenth birthday because they are eager to become a legal adult. However, I eagerly anticipated my eighteenth birthday because I knew I would be voting in my first presidential election. In the 2016 presidential election, twenty-five percent of ballots were cast by mail, and that percentage is expected to increase with many states converting to vote-by-mail entirely. Although vote-by-mail may have its advantages, the process often excludes people with disabilities.

My roommate Claudia and I decided to make the two-hour drive home from our university, located in a different state, to vote at our local polling place. I was able to vote privately and independently at my polling place as guaranteed to me by Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), signed into law on July 26, 1990 by President George H.W. Bush. I left my polling place feeling empowered with a smile on my face and an “I voted” sticker in hand.

Two years later, my experience voting in the 2018 midterm election was drastically different. I am unable to drive, so I was not able to make the two-hour drive home. I could not have utilized public transportation options because it would have meant a 10-hour round-trip commute, forcing me to miss classroom instruction. Thus, my only option was to request an absentee ballot.

In North Carolina, my state of residence, one must print out an absentee ballot request form, fill it out, and then mail it in. This is not accessible for individuals like myself, who are blind, or individuals with print disabilities because the form is not editable. A month prior to the election, I printed out the form, asked a friend to help me fill it out, and mailed it out to my local board of elections. Two weeks later, I received a paper ballot in the mail—a ballot that was inaccessible to me. I contacted the North Carolina State Board of Elections regarding the inaccessible absentee ballot, and the woman I spoke to suggested I have a sighted person fill out the ballot. I explained that doing so would infringe on my right to vote privately and independently, but that did not appear to matter. Unlike my previous experience voting, I was not thrilled at the prospect of voting, primarily because I was forced to consider who I would ask to fill out my ballot—a daunting task for anyone in my position. I came to the conclusion that I was going to feel uncomfortable regardless of who I chose as my scribe. I completed my ballot with a friend whom I trust and mailed it to my local board of elections because I refuse to allow unnecessary barriers to prevent me from voting. However, unlike my prior experience voting, I didn’t feel empowered. Instead, I felt utterly frustrated—frustrated that the system had failed me, along with other Americans with disabilities who were seeking to make their voices heard.

It is frequently said that if you want your voice to be heard, you need to vote. Elected officials primarily represent the interests of their constituents who vote them into office. But what about those constituents who face barriers when doing their best to participate in the political process? Do their voices carry less merit?

My frustration with boards of election stems from the fact that many states have utilized secure electronic systems for those who serve in the military, and that same accommodation should be extended to individuals with disabilities. If states do not currently have such technology in place, they should work towards that goal.

In 2014, blind voters in Maryland were able to cast an absentee ballot with the use of an entirely accessible online marking tool. Voters visited a secure website using their preferred type of access technology, marked the ballot independently, downloaded the completed ballot to their computers, printed it out, and mailed it in. This was quite rewarding to members of the National Federation of the Blind, who have been long-time advocates of accessible voting systems. New Mexico and Ohio have followed Maryland in the implementation of accessible electronic ballot delivery systems. Although it is long overdue, it is time that remaining states follow suit.