For voters with disabilities, access to casting a ballot has never been equal.
While an estimated 38.3 million people with disabilities are eligible to vote this year, many face physical challenges at polling places or need assistance filling out absentee ballots. In 2016, for instance, 83 percent of polling places studied by the United States Government Accountability Office had one or more potential accessibility impediment.
“We work with people who have developmental disabilities and brain injuries, and there are many of them who want to vote, and many of them have voted,” said Kenneth Singer, president and CEO of Berkshire County Arc. “It’s definitely a challenge. Many, many of our people need assistance, whether it be physical assistance, reading the ballot or understanding the ballot.”
Joy Marino, site manager for Berkshire County Arc’s Thomas Flynn, Jr. Community Apartments, tried to assist a local voter with disabilities at the ballot box in 2016. Yet when she explained the individual had a disability, she was told “the voting place was for the voter.”
This year, Marino opted to help people with disabilities vote through absentee ballots. “It was helpful because we were able to have discussions prior to voting, like about the questions on the ballot, and trying to get the individuals to understand what they all meant,” she said. “You want them to vote how they want to vote, so you want to keep your feelings out of it.”
While a September report deemed Massachusetts and Michigan absentee ballot applications to be accessible, it found that more than 40 states had applications that were not fully accessible to voters with disabilities.
The American Association of People with Disabilities has said the pandemic makes in-person voting a greater risk for people with disabilities. Voting by mail, in addition, doesn’t allow for people with disabilities to vote independently, since many require assistance from another person to fill out a paper ballot.
The REV UP coalition also launched a campaign to “get out the vote” for people with disabilities.
In Massachusetts, the Secretary of State’s Office this year began a collaboration with VotingWorks, which provides an “accessible vote-by-mail system” seeking to allow individuals with disabilities to vote “privately and independently.” Through the system, voters can hear the ballot in audio form, or make it easier to read by changing the text size or contrast.
Those who requested an accessible ballot from a local election official and met eligibility rules received an email with a link to the platform. From there, they had to print out their completed ballot and return it to an election office.
As of Friday, 41 people had applied for and received an accessible ballot, The Enterprise reported.
“As voters with disabilities, we should have the same opportunity to vote and mobilize the power of our community,” American Association of People with Disabilities President and CEO Maria Town said in a September news release. “[I]t is up to federal, state, and local governments to take action now to make our democracy work for all voters.”