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electionlineWeekly — May 5, 2016

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I. In Focus This Week

EAC hosts public hearing on accessibility
Equipment is there, but obstacles remain for voters with disabilities

By Dan Seligson

It has been 14 years since the implementation of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). It has been almost that long since election officials across the country have worked to implement (and in many cases, replaced and re-implemented), new voting machines, polling place procedures and improved access to polling sites.

Yet, at a public hearing in Boston last week, it became clear that while HAVA has succeeded in many ways – including the mandatory addition of polling place machines that allow voters with a variety of disabilities to vote independently and with confidence that their vote counted – the experience of voting has lagged behind the vision laid out by HAVA.

“One in five Americans have a disability,” said U.S. Election Assistance Commission member Thomas Hicks, leading his first meeting as Chair of the commission. “Their voting rights must be honored as vehemently as all others.

Testimony from voters with disabilities from around the country, particularly those with visual disabilities, share a theme: machines that do the job, but many hurdles to clear before getting to use a reliable machine operated by a well-trained, empathetic poll worker.

“The voting machine works well for me,” wrote Frank Welte, a California voter in testimony. “However, at least on three occasions, the voting machine was not set up and operating when the polling place opened…I have ended up waiting quite some time…for poll workers to figure out how to activate the voting machine.”

Erica Jones, a New York voter and advocate for people with disabilities, said her experience was not the independent experience envisioned in HAVA.

“The poll workers were not aware how to operate the accessible Ballot Marking Device. Also, I was not given a private vote as other voters were surrounding the area of the [device],” she said.

“It would be nice if a blind person like myself could use the write-in part of the ballot like everyone else,” said Brian, a voter from New Jersey who did not provide his last name.

For their part, the U.S. Election Assistance Commissioners who held the hearing in Boston said they understood the ongoing challenges in implementing not only the requirements of the federal law, but improving the on-the- ground experience of voters with disabilities on election day. As did William Galvin, the top voting official in Massachusetts, who gave a keynote at the beginning of the hearing.

“The creation of [the EAC] came out of an electoral crisis in 2000,” Galvin said. “Sixteen years later, we have made progress but still have a long way to go.”

Specifically, Galvin said until 2000, the voting experience of voters with disabilities was “papered over.”

“If you’re like me and you’ve been involved with elections for a long time, you’re so focused on the mechanics and outcome of an election that you don’t take as much time as you should thinking about what the right to vote would mean to individual citizens,” Galvin said.

To that end, some localities are taking steps to train poll workers to assist voters with disabilities exercise their right to vote. A program in Boston, for example, has an additional voluntary training for poll workers, training them to be empathetic and sensitive to the needs of votes with disabilities.

“That training went beyond information about machines and focused on understanding voters with disabilities and how poll workers can appropriately assist them,” said Dion Irish, chairman of the Boston Elections Commission.

Yet, for its promise, the course is voluntary, designed for once- or twice-a- year temporary citizens who serve as poll workers. And very few, Irish noted, had actually opted to take the training.

Challenges for voters with disabilities have gone beyond machines and poll worker shortcomings. During New England’s nightmarish winter of 2014-2015, election officials struggled to ensure ramps at polling places were clear of snow – then large puddles – on election day in municipalities that hold town elections in March.

And year round, there are often parking shortages, particularly spaces reserved for people with disabilities that are close enough to ramps and doorways.

Most places in California never see a flake of snow. Yet, different challenges continue to hinder voting by people with disabilities.

“Great barriers to access still exist in every region of California,” said Ted Jackson, community organizing director for the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers. “Officials continue to rely on voter education materials that are out of date. Vote-by- mail is not accessible by all. In some places, there is a lack of understanding about how to protect the rights of voters… to read and cast a ballot independently.”

In short, a substantial amount of progress has been made, but perhaps even more remain.

“It’s not that the equipment isn’t there or doesn’t work,” Galvin said. It does work and it is there. People administering each election need to make sure a person with a disability can use the equipment with confidence and without any sense of stigma. The process now is about furthering and helping election officials – and citizens – to move it forward.”

A full video of the hearing is available here.