Amy Ruell remembers the first time she was able to cast a ballot privately and independently, describing it as a “powerful and emotional experience.”
As a blind person, Ruell, 66, doesn’t have to think that far back to remember. The Help America Vote Act, which requires that all polling places have at least one accessible voting machine, was only passed in 2002. But even in the 18 years since, advocates say that blind people often have to politely but firmly remind poll workers of their right to vote privately and independently via an accessible machine.
That’s why Ruell, who lives in Cambridge and is the president of the Massachusetts affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind, said she was especially concerned when the coronavirus pandemic made going to the polls risky, and states responded by expanding the use of mail-in ballots. With no plan in sight for an accessible mail-in ballot system for the September primary elections, Ruell said she knew the presidential election in November was going to be a battle against disenfranchisement for her and the other 100,000-plus legally blind Massachusetts residents.
“We felt like this time, we had a legal leg to stand on,” said Brian Charlson, president of the Bay State Council of the Blind, a Massachusetts affiliate of the American Council of the Blind. “We weren’t given equal access to the ballot box.”
Charlson and Ruell joined forces with the Massachusetts Disability Law Center and a handful of individuals to file an emergency petition in the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts in August. The petition asked the state to release information regarding the availability for an accessible mail-in ballot system and the process of requesting its use. That was a big step; Charlson explained that his organization usually tries to solve issues through structured negotiation, rather than legal action.
In July, prior to the petition, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a state law that expanded voting options during COVID-19. The law stipulates that Massachusetts voters with disabilities are entitled to use an accessible, electronic vote-by-mail system. But as the primary election neared, it was clear, Charlson says, that the system in place was inadequate.
“[Secretary of State William] Galvin’s office kept not communicating and not communicating and not communicating how they were going to do this,” Charlson said. “They were required to try, but not succeed. That’s when we filed [the petition].”
Shortly after the petition was filed, Galvin signed a contract with VotingWorks, a nonprofit voting systems vendor used in 12 other states, to provide an accessible vote-by-mail system.
Given the condensed timeline, the system was not without problems.
“Sadly, the secretary of state’s office did not come out with any procedures we could follow until two days before you could apply,” Ruell said. “One of the hurdles we had to deal with was even the form, initially, that was required to request the accessible ballot was itself inaccessible with a screen reader [software that reads computer text out loud].”
Charlson said that once the accessible electronic voting system was set up, a total of only 14 residents successfully used it to vote in the September primary, out of 30 people who expressed interest in using it. Eight asked questions about potentially using it, but never applied. Another eight people applied and tried to use the process, but failed, either because they didn't fill out the form correctly or didn't do all the steps before the deadlines.
Debra O’Malley, a spokesperson for Galvin’s office, acknowledged that outreach about the system to blind Massachusetts voters has fallen almost entirely on groups like the Massachusetts Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired and the Bay State Council of the Blind. Now that these organizations have had more time to inform their members about the accessible system, many more voters are expected to utilize the system in November.
“I would encourage anyone who’s interested in using [the system] to go to the website,” O’Malley said. “It’s linked pretty prominently on our website.”
Use of the accessible system must be requested, either via an online form — now accessible by screen reader — or phone. Voters also must submit a mail-in ballot request to the accessible vote-by-mail coordinator via email. After those two requests are processed, the voter receives access to a secure online ballot, which they can complete on their personal computer with their own supportive technology.
Once completed, the ballot must be printed, and the voter must sign the inner envelope containing the affidavit (the location of the signature is indicated by a hole-punch). Then, the ballot and signed affidavit are either mailed or hand-delivered to the voter’s local elections office.
Blindness varies considerably from person to person, even among those classified as “legally blind.” Charlson explained that not all blind people use the same adaptive technology, or know how to read braille, and many have not been blind long enough to know what accommodations they prefer. In addition, many blind and visually impaired people are unable to sign their name.
Designing a mail-in voting system that accounts for the variance in ability is a challenge many states are still struggling with. The National Federation of the Blind is working with its affiliates in 23 states to make sure accessible systems are in place by November.
Even for blind voters who decide to go in-person to the polls, precautions against the coronavirus make navigating the voting experience more challenging. People lined up 6 feet apart make it difficult to locate the end of the line with a cane, and masks can obscure spoken directions. Before the pandemic, poll workers might take a blind person’s elbow to guide them to the voting machine. Now, they must maintain proper social distancing.
Use of the accessible mail-in system, however, relies on a voter having access to a computer, printer and the internet in the first place, and knowing how to use them.
“I’m very concerned because many people, especially old people, don’t have the technological equipment or even skills to vote electronically,” Ruell said. “Despite our soul-searching and brainstorming, we’ve not been able to come up with another way to vote securely.”
O’Malley said the options for people without computer access are to go in person to the polls or have a trusted sighted friend or family member fill out the mail-in ballot for them.
“Unfortunately, it is an online-based system,” O’Malley said. “If you’re not comfortable with a computer, if you want someone to help you fill it out, that’s fine, too.”
But for many blind and visually impaired people, having to rely on someone else is a step backward to the days before the Help America Vote Act was passed.
“I think many Americans take the opportunity to vote for granted,” Ruell said. “When systems are inaccessible, we have to rely on people to do things for us that we would rather do ourselves. When accessibility is taken into consideration, it improves the experience for everybody.”
Stella Lorence is a junior at Boston University.