Programs and technology are working to make sure disabled voters' voices are heard.
Given what seems to be a never-ending amount of mind-numbing political ads over the last few months, it should come as little surprise that Election Day is next month (Nov. 6).
Deciding who occupies the White House, sits in Congress and many other issues is part of our constitutional right as Americans. However, exercising that right is much easier said than done for many people, especially for those with disabilities.
Although voting accessibility has improved since the Help America Vote Act, people with disabilities still face barriers to voting privately and independently. The Government Accountability Office reported in 2008 that only 27% of polling places were fully accessible.
Disabled veterans are a large part of people who may have trouble in casting their ballot, but several studies and programs are working to make things easier.
A Closer Look
The number of veterans with disabilities continues to grow as a result of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Department of Defense reports as of July 12 show more than 49,000 servicemen and -women have incurred wounds and catastrophic injuries resulting in some sort of permanent disability.
The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF), the Georgia Tech Research Institute and the Operation BRAVO Foundation came together in 2010 to help these folks have their say on Election Day.
The group received a grant from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) to determine voting needs of recently injured military members. They would recommend ways to improve technologies and election administration practices to assist them in voting.
Voters with disabilities can request assistance when casting their ballots.
Shortly after, the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP) in the Department of Defense initiated a series of studies. This was to assess voter registration and absentee voting problems among recently injured active-duty personnel and veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.
To avoid duplication with FVAP’s efforts, ITIF’s research has focused on recently disabled military personnel with civilian status (i.e., veterans with disabilities from Iraq and Afghanistan). However, many of the findings from this research apply to injured active-duty military personnel and veterans from previous conflicts.
Recently injured servicemembers are likely to experience at least some degree of difficulty performing activities associated with voting.
Veterans with disabilities generally face many of the same barriers to voting as other voters with disabilities. Some of these barriers include:
- Inaccessible polling places. Veterans who vote in community polling places may encounter inaccessible physical spaces.
- Ballot design. Issues with ballot design include the legibility and the size of the text, small ovals on optical scan ballots, overly complex ballot design, and confusing instructions.
- Voting technologies. Veterans with prosthetic hands or arms may have difficulty using a touch screen, marking small targets such as the typical ovals on optical scan ballots, and handling election materials.
Veterans finding themselves under the care of a VA medical center during election time can also find plenty of help there.
VA relies on its staff of voluntary service and social workers to guide veterans through the process. The basic assistance offered includes completing voter registration and/or obtaining and completing an absentee ballot. Volunteers only assist inpatients/residents in completing the forms and in providing additional information on the voting process.
Besides offering nonpartisan voter registration volunteers, VA medical centers advertise voter information with posters and flyers. Some medical centers even arrange for transportation to polling stations.
VA medical centers also work with state and local officials to make sure every veteran gets to exercise the right to vote that they helped to protect.
Disabled veterans not able to take advantage of help through VA can find assistance through several state programs that address needs of voters with disabilities.
Here are some of the state voting assistance programs:
California provides voter information guides in multiple formats, including electronically and in multiple languages.
South Carolina distributes online training videos for poll managers on how to serve voters with disabilities.
North Carolina posts online photos of every voting location to show voters with disabilities the best way to access a polling place facility.
Missouri information for voters with disabilities is sent by mail to individuals who have registered with the Department of Revenue as drivers with disabilities.
Oregon has a pilot project using iPads and portable printers to provide supervised voting in nursing homes, community centers and other locations.
The iPad Vote?
The continued advancement of technology is helping to make voting even more accessible for people with disabilities.
A report from ITIF, Georgia Tech and Operation BRAVO believes devices such as the popular iPad could be the key to making voting easier. Voters would use a tablet computer, such as an iPad, as a portable absentee voting system, to obtain a ballot, mark it electronically in an accessible way, and “cast” the ballot (e.g., by printing it out and mailing it).
The study adds that many voting systems don’t take advantage of the latest technology such as switches, speech recognition software, sip-and-puff controls, and head pointers that would enable more individuals to vote privately and independently.
However, the group also points out that technology alone isn’t enough to impact voting. Thought must be given to the policies, processes, and support services. Among the report’s recommendations are:
- Coordinate voting assistance services with VA facilities. Election officials should create uniform procedures for helping in VA residential and other facilities.
- Make accessible voting information available. Many servicemembers with disabilities are not aware of the various ways in which they can access voter registration and absentee ballot forms.
- Streamline the process for obtaining absentee ballots.
- Relax local ballot design requirements. State or local laws often make ballot design in undesirable ways such as a cluttered layout.
- Make ballot data available in electronic format. Ballots must be able to be displayed in a variety of ways based on the needs of the individual voter.
- Pursue innovative technology. Election officials should continue to use technology that makes voting more accessible, convenient and secure for all voters.
For more information about accessible voting, visit the Federal Voting Assistance program at www.fvap.gov or the U.S. Election Assistance Commission at www.eac.gov.