More Needs to Be Done for Voters With Disabilities, Advisory Committee Says

Eman Rimawi-Doster was still settling into her new-ish apartment in Brooklyn in July when a postcard arrived in the mail. In large bold letters, the message detailed the location of her new polling place where she would soon head to cast her ballot for the 2022 August primary.

So, on August 23, she wrapped up work and headed out to cast a ballot that would never be counted. She received the wrong polling location in the mail.

For some, this hindrance would’ve been just an irritation solved by a quick subway ride or a walk down the block. However, as a wheelchair-reliant double amputee, Rimawi-Doster uses Access-A-Ride — New York City’s disability transportation service — to get her to and from the polls. It was too late to schedule a ride anywhere else. 

“It was very, very frustrating and annoying,” Rimawi-Doster said. “For the next one, I’m going to try to go during early voting, just in case I encounter any issues. But I just felt like it was such a missed opportunity.”   

The experience was all the more alarming for Rimawi-Doster because of her professional work as an Access-A-Ride coordinator for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. In her role, she advocates for improvements to the transportation program, speaking directly with members of the community to address driver no-shows, delayed arrival times and other challenges. Her work served as a primary inspiration for her role on the Board of Elections Accessible Voter Advisory Committee (AVAC), established in June to bridge the gap between disabled voters and the Board of Elections.

The 12-member group, with representation from all five boroughs, convened for its second meeting on Sept. 15. Though the group is still in its introductory phase, their insights bring a unique community perspective to the physical, mental and technological barriers differently-abled voters face at over 1,200 polling locations throughout the city.

Ariel Merkel, the Board of Elections Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator, noted that the city’s challenges since 2020 have included addressing “cracked or missing handrails” on entrance ramps and entrances to polling locations being sloped and “difficult for a voter in a wheelchair to open the door without rolling backward.” 

However, the most prominent issue for committee members was access to absentee ballots and expanding access to hybrid voting methods that offer both in-person and digital accessibility resources. These include the usual ballot marking resources Sip-N-Puff and Rocker Paddle, audio-guided, assistive voting technology for individuals who are unable to use their hands or have limited mobility, and the email-based printed ballot that allows disabled voters to print and mail in ballots from home

Committee member Seamus Campbell, former caucus chair for the Young Democrats of New York Disability Issues, spoke about delayed absentee ballot delivery and his experience receiving another voter’s ballot in the mail in 2020. “I don’t always assume a malicious intent, it could also just be incompetence, but the only real solution is more transparency from The Board of Elections,” he said in an interview with Columbia News Service.

More than 3 million residents of New York state over the age of 18 have a disability, according to a May 2022 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About twenty percent of the people in this group have mobility, vision and cognition challenges that rely on assistive voting resources to cast their ballots.   

With the general election less than four weeks away, the New York Board of Elections is still awaiting approval of new ballot marking devices.  

For the past decade, New York City has used Election Systems & Software (ES&S) Automark Voting Machines. The system allows voters, primarily those with disabilities, to privately and independently cast their ballot on a digital device. The aging system will be deemed obsolete in the next few years.

In 2020, ES&S introduced ExpressVote XL, a new touch screen voting machine that allows for voters to complete their ballot electronically rather than using the hand-marked paper ballot. Though the new system has not been certified by the New York State Board of Elections, the company will eventually halt service updates to the Automark machines. Since the city’s original request for new systems in 2020, the Board of Elections and state officials have faced opposition to new voting technology from election experts, who point to systems being hacked as a main security concern. 

In a letter to state officials, they say some devices “use barcodes to count votes, making it impossible for the voter to verify who they voted for.”

Since the advisory committee’s first meeting, the Board of Elections has focused on addressing concerns like increasing the font on election signage at polling locations, a struggle highlighted by committee members. They also plan to update the Accessible Voting Advisory Committee webpage to connect board members to people in the community.

The committee will reconvene in November after the midterms. 

About the author(s)

Tamia Fowlkes is a journalist and M.S. student at Columbia Journalism School. Her work has been featured in POLITICO, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin State Journal and Blavity.