To vote in this year’s election, Watertown resident Kim Charlson won’t need to go to her polling place, print out a ballot or sign any forms. Charlson, who is blind, plans to take advantage of a new voting system for people with disabilities that allows them to cast their ballot electronically through a secure web portal.

The option was available in five cities last year: Boston, Cambridge, Quincy, Watertown and Worcester. It is now permanently available statewide, thanks to a lesser-known provision in the VOTES Act passed in June, which aimed to make voting in the state overall easier by permanently offering mail-in voting for all Massachusetts voters and expanding early voting. Advocates say, in many ways, it puts Massachusetts at the forefront of accessible voting as one of just a handful of states now allowing the electronic option for disabled voters. Once they apply, voters using the new method can cast their ballot electronically early or before polls close on Election Day at 8 p.m. on Nov. 8.

“I'm just delighted at the ease of voting, and the privacy of being able to do it independently and submit my ballot and know I'm all set,” said Charlson, executive director of the Perkins Library at Perkins School for the Blind, who first used the new system last year. “It makes me feel good about the democratic process.”

Charlson remembers that when she first voted at age 18, her best option was to have a friend or poll worker join her in the voting booth to help fill out a ballot. She and other advocates say having more voting options — from secure web voting, to mail-in ballots, to accessible machines at polling places — are a big step forward for disabled people.

“I think the disability community takes it [voting] very seriously because we had to kind of fight the fights to get to have the opportunity to vote privately and independently,” Charlson said.

In 2020, the Disability Law Center partnered with the Bay State Council of the Blind and the Boston Center for Independent Living to sue the state over lack of accommodations made for disabled people to vote safely and securely during the pandemic. Secretary of State Bill Galvin settled the lawsuit right before the election to allow disabled voters to vote electronically.

But during the 2020 election, voters with disabilities who chose the electronic method still needed a printer and had to physically sign the ballot. Advocates pushed for the option to last beyond that single year and worked with the secretary of state’s office to make it even more accessible.

“We wanted to get away from mail-in because once you're dealing with hard copy anything, then it's not accessible for blind people,” explained David Kingsbury, president of Bay State Council of the Blind. “Somebody is going to have to fill it out. Somebody is going to have to print it, somebody is going to have to put it in the mail and so on.”

A webpage with an American flag banner and a ballot below. It reads “Your ballot is presented below” and details how to vote using the electronic ballot. Underneath, the choice to choose a candidate in an example race is shown: “For US Senator, Santa Claus, Ebenezer Scrooge or Write-In”
A sample ballot showed during an Oct. 24 demostration for the new voting method
Screengrab by GBH News

To use the new system, the voter fills out an application on the secretary of state’s website, verifying their voter registration status and certifying that they have a disability. The application, due Nov. 1 by 5 p.m., then goes to the town’s election official, who sends two separate emails back to the voter — one with a PIN and one with the ballot that can be accessed through a secure web portal. The voter uses their own screen reading technology to independently fill out the accessible ballot at home. The platform has been tested on more than 90 combinations of screen readers and web browsers.

Kingsbury, who is blind, was impressed by how smoothly it went last year in the five municipalities during the off-year elections. He plans to vote electronically in Stoughton this November.

“Overall experience has been extremely positive,” Kingsbury said. “I think for something being put in place the first time, it's worked incredibly smoothly.”

Janet Murphy, the town clerk for Watertown, helped implement the new system last year. Six people used the system in 2021, and she told GBH News so far eight applications have come in for 2022. Murphy said the town spent under $2,000 to get it up and running with the help of Democracy Live, a voting technology company. Both Murphy and Charlson say they’re actively working to spread the word about the new option.

“It made complete sense to me, especially given that Perkins School for the Blind is here in Watertown,” she said.

Offering the electronic option “couldn’t be easier” for town election workers, she said. “It’s not cumbersome ... it’s very straightforward.”

Massachusetts is the fourth state in the nation to enact such a program for voters with disabilities, following West Virginia, Colorado and North Carolina. It’s the same technology that some states use to allow overseas military members to vote.

“This is not purely a blue state type of thing,” Kingsbury said.

"I think the disability community takes it [voting] very seriously because we had to kind of fight the fights to get to have the opportunity to vote privately and independently."
-Kim Charlson, Perkins Library executive director

In addition to the electronic option, disabled voters can also use the options available to every voter in the state: they can vote early, vote by mail or vote at their polling place on Election Day. Every location is required to have an AutoMark machine to enable accessible voting, and every polling place itself must be accessible for people with physical disabilities through ramps and accessible parking spots.

Rachel Tanenhaus, executive director of Cambridge Commission for Persons with Disabilities, is glad to have options. In 2020, she used the electronic vote system because she didn’t want to risk getting exposed to COVID-19. This year she plans to vote at her polling place in Malden.

“Not everybody is voting online. And I like voting in person,” she said, noting that not all disabled people are proficient with assistive technology. “When there are not 10 million accessibility barriers, it's actually pretty cool to do. ... The important point is that you have that choice.”

Tanenhaus, who has low vision, can use an AutoMark machine to increase the size of the ballot text, increase the contrast and use tactile raised buttons or Braille to fill out her ballot privately.

Occasionally she has encountered problems with such machines: it wasn’t plugged in, the poll worker didn’t know how to use it or the machine was faced outward so that everyone could see her ballot. There are also transportation accessibility challenges getting to polling places, such as navigating public transportation and weather like rain, ice and snow that makes it harder for people with mobility devices or who are blind to get around.

Even with the occasional obstacle, she enjoys voting in person and says technology has improved access.

“The experience is so much better,” she said. “I don't have to have panic attacks when I go vote anymore, because it's just really important to me — just like it's really important to you and a lot of other people to be able to vote.”

For Kingsbury, the success of the new secure electronic voting system indicates a future where voting access is expanded for everyone — not just people with disabilities.

“This really goes beyond disability,” he said. “I mean, this is the 21st century. We do pretty much everything else by internet. ... And I just sort of think, in the future, this is really something that should hopefully be adopted by many states for all varieties of voters.”

The deadline to submit an application for Accessible Vote By Mail is Tuesday, Nov. 1 at 5 p.m.