Lauren Berglund’s journey to voting this year began back in December, shortly after she moved from her home state of Iowa to Saint James, New York, a small hamlet on the north shore of Long Island about an hour from New York City. At the time, the 2020 election was almost a year away — but based on past experience, Berglund knew that she needed to start getting organized to vote early.
That’s because Berglund, who was born with a genetic condition causing significant vision loss, is legally blind.
“I wanted to be able to vote independently,” she said, as she had done in previous elections in Iowa.
So, she made an appointment at her local Department of Motor Vehicles to officially change her residency to New York, which would then allow her to register to vote in the state. That way, she could head to the polls in person and take advantage of the accessible voting machines required by law to be available at her local polling center.
But then the coronavirus pandemic hit.
With her DMV appointment cancelled indefinitely, Berglund reset her sights on voting by absentee ballot from her permanent address in Iowa, where she was already registered to vote. There was just one problem: Berglund is not able to read paper or fill in the bubbles that make up a typical mail-in ballot.
Once her absentee ballot application arrived, she used an app on her phone to scan it and send it to her computer, where she used software to have the form read aloud back to her. She then converted the form to a fillable PDF so that she could complete the fields with the help of her computer.
Then came the problem of sending the application back — which she had to do not once, but twice, as the first time there was a problem with her registration. Unable to drive, and weary of taking public transportation during the pandemic, she would need to arrange for a safe ride to the post office in order to drop off her application. She knew that would be a hassle to schedule and could also lead to unwanted exposure to the virus, so she sent the first form back to her mother in Iowa, who walked it into her hometown’s municipal office. A chance run-in with her local postal worker on the street outside her place saved her the second time, as she was able to give him the application directly.
“Thankfully I had that choice, and someone to help, or this wouldn’t have worked anyway,” she said. “It really does take a village.”
And then, finally, her absentee ballot arrived from Iowa — complete with the bubbles, columns, and signature fields that are so common on most voting ballots.
Using her scanning app, she was able to read the ballot, “But as I was filling it out, I couldn’t tell if I was inside the bullets or not,” she said.
Mom to the rescue once again; Berglund FaceTimed her mother to help her read through the ballot and then guide her to fill out the bubbles next to her choices.
“I did the best I could,” Berglund said. “But I did not get to vote independently or privately. Thankfully, I have similar [political] views to my mom, because she helped me fill out the entire thing.”
Her completed ballot finally in hand, Berglund knew she couldn't rely on running into her local postal worker again to send it back. So she risked a bus ride to the post office to drop it into the mail herself. After checking the online ballot tracker every single day afterward — “thankfully, that part was accessible,” she said — to make sure that it arrived in Iowa safe and sound, it finally came back showing that her ballot had been officially cast — and her voice officially heard.
In the end, Berglund, who works for an organization that places guide dogs with veterans, first responders, and blind individuals, was frustrated by her voting experience, but also somewhat relieved that she didn’t have to brave the polls in person. Due to a connective tissue disease, she is unable to stand comfortably for more than 15 minutes at a time.
“I’ve seen the reports of lines that are three blocks long, and there is just no way,” she said.
She noted that it’s more difficult for her to maintain the recommended six-feet of social distance because she can’t see to accurately gauge the space between her and the people around her. In addition, her guide dog, Sami, is trained to head right for the door, not to wait in line. And the need for working in close contact with a sighted guide for assistance with the voting machines would have put her at additional risk of exposure for the virus.
“I can’t see if someone is wearing a mask properly, so I just hope for the best,” she said.
And that’s if the accessible voting machines were even setup and working properly, which Berglund has found in past experience isn’t always the case.
“It would not have been fun to go through all of the trouble to get [to the polls] and then be like ‘oh shucks,’” without an accessible machine to vote on, she said.
Despite the many challenges of voting this year — in fact, because of them — Berglund had a strong message for other voters, regardless of disability.
“Don’t take your ability to vote easily for granted. Take advantage of it. If you can easily get out and vote, do it,” she said. She also implored people to be kind to one another at the polls. “It could have taken a lot for some people just to get there,” she said.
Berglund’s hope is that the heightened awareness of social injustices that has taken hold across the country will not stop once Election Day is over. “People are thinking about things they haven’t always been thinking about, especially when it comes to marginalized communities,” she said. “The fight is ongoing and always will be."