Tracking Lack of Accessibility in Absentee Ballots

September 10, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic is widely expected to have a significant effect on the Nov. 3 election, and many voters anticipate problems. Per an August poll from Pew Research Center, 49 percent of registered voters said that they expected to have difficulties casting a ballot in November.

Many states have introduced significant changes to address these challenges, including universal access to mail-in ballots. But as states devote resources to the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic, some voters in the disabilities community say that they’re being left out.

In April, two voters along with the National Federation of the Blind filed a lawsuit against Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, alleging that the state’s absentee ballot program denies individuals' rights to vote privately and independently. That suit ended in a consent order when the state agreed to introduce a Remote Accessible Vote-by-Mail system, which would allow blind voters to receive accessible ballots online and fill them out with screen readers and similar technologies.

But in June, the plaintiffs filed to have Benson found in contempt, accusing the Secretary of State of "violating the agreement … and threatening to disenfranchise voters." The state argued that the new accessible system would be "impractical" due to unforeseen issues beyond the state’s control — namely, Michigan’s push to extend absentee voting substantially as a result of the pandemic.

"We are outraged by the state’s failure to uphold its agreement with the blind of Michigan and of America," Mark Riccobono, president of the National Federation of the Blind, told The Detroit Free Press.

The case demonstrates the difficulty that voters with disabilities can face when trying to exercise their constitutional right to vote, particularly when mail-in ballots are necessary.

While mail-in votes surge, accessibility isn't always a priority

In the 2020 elections, at least 75 percent of all Americans will be eligible to receive a ballot in the mail, per a New York Times analysis, and election offices are expected to receive roughly 80 million mail ballots, more than twice as many as were received in 2016.

But for people with disabilities, mail-in votes can carry some significant challenges. About 14 million Americans have vision impairments, and 1.3 million are legally blind — but fewer than 10 percent of those legally blind individuals are Braille readers. To fill out a paper ballot, the vast majority of these individuals need assistance, which can be problematic for people who want to keep their votes confidential.

Screen reader software can allow voters to fill out ballots electronically, but few states offer online ballots. That’s starting to change; in January, West Virginia passed a bill allowing electronic voting for people with disabilities, and in April, Delaware became the second state to offer the option for its May primaries.

However, as the election approaches, states are running out of time to implement these types of changes.

In the United States, people with disabilities are less likely to vote

For many voters with disabilities, physical polling places still provide the best resources for casting ballots. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires polling locations to provide accommodations for people with disabilities. This includes accessible voting equipment (for instance, ballot-marking devices, which allow voters to complete ballots in a variety of ways) and resources for voter assistants. Of course, physical polling places aren’t always accessible, even in elections that don’t occur during a global pandemic.

Accessible absentee ballots — including electronic ballots — might help to address the significant voting disparities between people with and without disabilities. According to a 2016 survey of voters performed by Rutgers University, voter participation among people with disabilities has dropped over the last two presidential elections; in 2016, about 55.9 percent of eligible voters with disabilities cast ballots. For comparison, about 61.4 percent of people without disabilities voted that year.

That’s a significant difference — and when adjusted for gender, race, age, and other demographic differences, the estimated gap expanded from 6.3 points to 7.8 points. Without proper accommodations for mail-in votes, the gap might grow on November 3rd.

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