Accessible Voting for Individuals with Disabilities

Young man in a wheelchair votingAlthough voting accessibility has improved since the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), voters with disabilities still face barriers to voting privately and independently.   

Voters with disabilities, including veterans, face many barriers to voting, including:

Inaccessible polling places—Veterans who vote in community polling places may encounter inaccessible physical spaces. The Government Accountability Office reported in 2008 that only 27% of polling places were fully accessible.

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—Although there has been progress since the 2000 federal elections, the technologies used to display and mark ballots need further improvement. For example, veterans with prosthetic hands or arms may have difficulty using a touch screen, using a pencil or stylus for marking a ballot, marking small targets such as the typical ovals on optical scan ballots, and handling election materials and ballots.

Voters with these impairments… …caused by these injuries… …may experience difficulty with these voting tasks
Loss of visual acuity, including blindness Traumatic brain injury Reading, marking and verifying the ballot.
Reading instructions for completing the ballot.
Sensitivity to light Traumatic brain injury

Reading an electronic display that emits light.
Reading a bright white paper ballot.

Hearing loss or tinnitus Traumatic brain injury

Hearing auditory cues (such as beeps) on a voting system.
Hearing speech output from a device or talking to a poll worker or voting assistance officer.

Difficulty concentrating Traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder

Maintaining focus on the voting process.
Ignoring distracting stimuli.
Keeping track of progress.
Completing the ballot in a potentially limited amount of time.
Paying attention to and comprehending instructions.

Memory problems Traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder

Remembering to vote.
Remembering and comprehending the instructions for completing the ballot.
Recognizing the names of candidates or other ballot options.
Understanding long passages of text.
Keeping track of progress.
Completing the ballot in a limited amount of time.

Learning new tasks Traumatic brain injury

Learning how to use new voting technology.
For first time voters, learning about the voting process.
Assembling the components of an absentee ballot.

Loss of dexterity and fine motor control; loss of sensation Upper body injuries, spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injury

Grasping and manipulating a tool for marking a ballot (e.g., a pencil or stylus).
Selecting or marking a small target (e.g., filling in a small oval).
Handling voting materials such as paper ballots, other voting paperwork, and security and mailing envelopes.

Amputation requiring the use of a prosthetic hand or arm Upper body injuries, spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injury

Using a touch screen (depending on the type of touch screen).
Grasping and manipulating a tool for marking a ballot (e.g., a pencil or stylus).
Selecting or marking a small target (e.g., filling in a small oval).
Handling voting materials such as paper ballots, other voting paperwork, and security in mailing envelopes.

Loss of mobility requiring the use of a wheelchair Lower body injuries, spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injury Reaching an installed device (e.g., a voting kiosk).
Pain or limits in endurance Upper body injuries, lower body injuries, spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injury Concentrating on the voting process.
Grasping and manipulating a tool for marking a ballot (e.g., a pencil or stylus).
Completing lengthy ballots.

State and local programs have been established to help address the needs of voters with disabilities. Examples include:

California, which provides voter information guides in multiple formats, including electronically, and in multiple languages;

South Carolina, which distributes online training videos for poll managers on how to serve voters with disabilities;

North Carolina, which posts online photos of every voting location to show voters with disabilities the best way to access a polling place facility;

Missouri, which sends Information for voters with disabilities by mail to individuals who have registered with the Department of Revenue as drivers with disabilities; and

Oregon, which has a pilot project using iPads and portable printers to provide supervised voting in nursing homes, community centers and other locations.

“HAVA has done a lot, but there are still challenges to overcome for voters with disabilities—especially veterans in Department of Veterans Affairs facilities,” says Lee Page, associate advocacy director. He cites the need for voting assistance to be provided more extensively to VA facilities and for uniform statewide procedures for providing with voter registration and absentee voting. In addition, election officials should prepare and conduct training for VA staff and volunteers who are designated to provide voter assistance.

About half of the states report working directly with VA facilities for voter education or to provide election materials and assistance to voters. However, most activities to support voters making the transition from military service to civilian life are local, rather than at the state level.

For more information about accessible voting for veterans and people with disabilities please see the following websites:

To register to vote, download the state by state guide and postcard form at this link.

Voters who require an absentee ballot—including active-duty members of the Armed Forces, Merchant Marine, Public Health Service, NOAA, and their family members as well as U.S. citizens living outside the State for work, school or other reasons—can request a ballot online at this link.

Additional information and resources for voters with disabilities can be found from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission and The Information Technology &  Innovation Foundation.

Lee Page is Associate Advocacy Director for Paralyzed Veterans of America.

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