It took the entry of the words hanging chad and butterfly ballot into the American lexicon during the 2000 election in Florida for Congress and the media to wake up to just how difficult it is for many voters to cast their ballots for the candidates of their choice. Unfortunately for many voters with disabilities, attempting to vote privately and independently has long been a frustrating and, at times, demeaning experience. As we now approach another election, there has been some progress. States and localities across the country have made major strides to improve the voting experience for Americans with a range of disabilities—but we still have a long way to go. In the United States, at least 44.5 million adults have some form of disability. Failure to fix the voting process for these citizens so that they can vote on a secret ballot using the voting machines in their local precincts weakens our democracy and compromises the integrity of our electoral process. It’s imperative that state and local election officials get this right.
Today, several years after the disputed presidential election in Florida, the voting experience for citizens who can’t perform certain tasks—like reading a ballot or holding a pencil—is still unequal to that of their peers without disabilities. As a result, millions of Americans continue to regard voting as an unpleasant, embarrassing and time-consuming experience. Not surprisingly, the majority of Americans who have disabilities do not vote.
After the Florida recount in 2000, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), giving birth to a landmark voting rights provision: new voting systems must allow voters with disabilities to complete and cast their ballots “in a manner that provides the same opportunity for access and participation (including privacy and independence) as for other voters.” As a result of HAVA, voters in the next election should see at least one voting machine at their local polling place equipped for individuals with disabilities. Furthermore, HAVA specified that by January 1, 2007, all voting systems purchased with federal funds must be accessible to people with disabilities.
That said, voters need to closely monitor the decisions of their local election officials to make sure HAVA’s requirements are enforced and any new machines purchased are truly accessible to voters with disabilities.
In 2005, the federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC) issued a set of standards for all voting systems, called the Voluntary Voting System Guidelines (VVSG). These guidelines reaffirmed many criteria from earlier voting system guidelines, but also strengthened the language of standards applying to accessibility. The new guidelines insist that several standards “shall” (rather than “should”) be followed, transforming these standards from optional recommendations to expected features.
Examples of the VVSG guidelines include the following: 1) Any buttons and controls on a voting system must be distinguishable by both shape and color; 2) voting systems must allow a voter to pause and resume an audio presentation and to rewind the presentation to a previous contest; 3) voting machines must allow voters to vary the speed of an audio presentation; 4) voters should be able to watch and listen to a ballot at the same time (a feature that is particularly important to voters with cognitive disabilities or a variety of conditions that affect the ability to read); and 5) for optical scan systems, “if voters normally feed their own optical scan ballots into a reader, blind voters should also be able to do so.”
While these standards seem clear enough, election officials across the country have struggled to determine which machines are truly accessible for the widest range of voters.
To help address this challenge and to give guidance to local disability rights advocates, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law convened some of America’s leading experts in the fields of voting technology and accessibility. These consultants examined the voting experience for people with disabilities and proposed policy recommendations for jurisdictions seeking to create a more equal voting process for all Americans.
The Brennan Center task force evaluated the accessibility of the six major voting systems currently on the market, paying particular attention to each system’s limitations in providing an accessible voting experience for all voters. Their report, Accessibility of Voting Systems, can serve as a roadmap for local and state election officials, advocates and voters as they assess whether or not the voting systems being selected for their precincts will truly work for voters with disabilities.
Among the report’s recommendations are the following: 1) Assessments of voting system accessibility must take into account the specific needs of citizens with multiple disabilities; 2) to determine accessibility, officials and advocates should examine each step a voting system requires a voter to perform, starting with ballot marking and ending with ballot submission; 3) accessibility tests must take into account a full range of disabilities; 4) all accessibility tests should be conducted with full ballots that reflect the complexity of ballots used in an election, not with simplified ballots that list only a few races; and 5) election officials should obtain contractual guarantees from vendors that the systems they purchase will be retrofitted at little or no extra cost as new accessibility features become available.
Of the six types of voting systems, the Brennan Center analyzed, only two satisfy the full range of requirements set forth by HAVA and the VVSG. Computerbased systems offer the greatest accessibility to voters with disabilities, particularly those with blindness or low vision. These systems allow voters to tailor a range of features to their individual needs instantly and without assistance by another person. Direct recording electronic (DRE) systems and ballot marking devices (BMDs) allow voters to listen to voting instructions and ballot information through headphones and adjust the volume and rate of the audio output. The use of different voices for instructions and ballot selections facilitates understanding and comfort. For voters with mild vision loss who may not need the audio assistance, computer interfaces provides an enhanced visual display that uses bigger and bolder text.
For voters with motor or coordination disabilities, a touch-screen may be very challenging to use in making selections. Tactile controls—buttons that can be distinguished by feel as well as by sight—provide a solution to this problem for many individuals.
For voters who cannot use their hands at all to input selections, certain machines include a dual switch input option, a jack that lets voters insert their own assistive input devices. For example, voters can attach a sip-andpuff device, allowing them to indicate their choices by applying pressure to a straw.
While many vendors have developed features to address the accessibility needs of voters, in practice these features may not actually help a person through his or her voting experience. For example, in one study voters with disabilities reported that low-quality computer-synthesized voices were more difficult to understand than digitized recordings of real human voices. Additionally, many vendors’ accessibility features do not yet address the needs of voters who have multiple disabilities (for example, people who are both deaf and blind).
Right now in your community, election officials are assessing various voting systems to purchase in time for the next election. Voters with disabilities and their allies have a historic opportunity to get involved the process and ensure that all voting systems allow everyone a real chance to independently cast a secret ballot. Here are ways that you can get involved:
1) Talk to your local election officials about features that make voting systems more accessible and make sure they are conducting proper accessibility and usability testing with real voters who have disabilities.
2) Manufacturers of voting systems develop new accessibility features frequently, so make sure that the machines purchased by your jurisdiction will be updated with those features at little or no extra cost as they become available.
3) The Election Assistance Commission is drafting a new version of the Voluntary Voting System Guidelines. When the guidelines are made public, participate in the public commenting period.
4) In addition to reviewing accessibility, the Brennan Center for Justice has also analyzed voting system security, usability and cost. The Center’s comprehensive findings and recommendations to jurisdictions and election officials are available at the Brennan Center website.
If enough voters speak up and get involved, the next presidential election could be a watershed moment for voters with disabilities in America’s political process.