Long lines, shoddy preparations and incomprehensible rules: The US voting process is marred by these well-documented problems. But these barriers are just the beginning for minority groups like the blind and visually impaired. Individuals with visual impairments often find typical ballots — electronic or otherwise — inaccessible. For these citizens, exercising their right to vote remains difficult, if not impossible. In some cases, even the way they are given assistance compromises confidentiality. Worse, the American public largely neglects these issues.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guarantees all disabled voters the right to arrive at the ballot box with relative ease, as well as access to specialized voting machines — but this alone is not enough. Al Jazeera recently reported on serious shortfalls in existing measures: Machines that verbalize voters’ choices are sometimes unintelligible or confusing, and officials at polling places are often not trained to operate them properly. Having officials assist differently abled voters in filling out their ballot compromises the secrecy of their choices. Often the only other option, besides going to underequipped polling places, is to vote by mail, which may require the help of visually abled friends or family members. These inherent inadequacies in the available choices mean a visually impaired voter will likely encounter critical barriers.
With the standard of a safe and confidential vote insufficiently protected, many organizations are seeking to expand voting options for the visually impaired. Some advocates have resorted to legal action. In National Federation of the Blind (NFB) v. Maryland State Board of Elections, a federal court ruled in favor of the NFB, concluding that the state must permit disabled individuals to use an online tool that makes it easier to vote. With this system, voters can mark ballots at home, without the assistance that would compromise privacy, and then send their ballot to the local election office. For Mark Riccobono, president of the NFB, the federal court decision in Maryland is a victory for civil rights and protects “the right to equal access and to a secret ballot” that could soon extend to the rest of the country. Since the case was tried in a federal court, Maryland will set an important precedent that could potentially lead to a national change in voter laws.
But success is not guaranteed. In fact, the Maryland affair shows that both Democrats and Republicans are hesitant to expand the use of electronic voting systems, even for the disabled. Democrats concerned with computer security and Republicans advocating for stricter voting laws have joined in opposition, their convictions aided by reports from security experts concerned that hackers could compromise the system. The NFB claims that such fears are unfounded and points to the fact that most states already permit members of the armed forces serving abroad to vote electronically. In addition, Alaska and Delaware already use similar online voting systems for visually impaired individuals, and neither measure has proved vulnerable to voter fraud, as security experts fear.
Here, civil rights have been pitted against security concerns — a theme that also permeates political debates about voter identification laws across the United States. In these instances, concerns over voting fraud are the antagonist to legal flexibility for voters. Politicians scrutinize whether the hardships of voting for certain minorities are the result of burdensome laws or inevitable social factors. Those who suggest that the difficulties are inevitable default to tighter voting laws and anti-fraud measures. Conversations surrounding voter identification laws show the racialized nature of the debate. As a result, there is an ongoing backlash against stricter voting laws that are seen as disproportionally affecting people of color, making it clear that perpetuating racist outcomes is unacceptable.
However, the similarly lopsided debate on the rights of the visually impaired is hidden from the public view. This hints at the distinct presence of ableism — structural forces and ingrained patterns of thought that entrench systemic obstacles for disabled individuals. Ableism is evident in the perception that because the visually impaired often rely on others for assistance in daily living, so too should they rely on assistance when voting. After Maryland’s Board of Elections initially rejected the online system, the director of the University of Maryland School of Law’s Center for Health and Homeland Security even said that “sanity prevailed” in the vote. The ableist undertones in this debate have scarcely been a topic of national conversation, much less a source of mobilization. A resolution to the debate over electronic voting for the visually impaired clearly lies in more than just the contention between civil rights and security — it requires changing attitudes towards the disabled community.
Politics will ultimately play an important hand in normalizing electronic voting procedures for the visually impaired. These procedures will likely be used in elections across the country and may transform larger attitudes within the voter accessibility debate. Maryland’s developments, both in the political and judicial spheres, not only illustrate a dispute between security and civil rights, but also shed light on how American society perceives the rights and privileges of people with disabilities. The issue of ableism has not yet received the attention it deserves. As the United States takes its voting system into the 21st century, its citizens must also modernize their views on civil rights.
Art By Emily Reif.