Margo Downey, 68, was one of hundreds of disabled voters who relied on the New York State Board of Elections’ new email-based voting process to help her cast her ballots during the June and August primaries.
She and dozens of other voters across the state eagerly anticipated the introduction of the new program, which was developed in April after Disability Rights New York sued the Board of Elections two years ago over voting accessibility issues.
The lawsuit settlement required the state to create electronically-fillable forms, applications, and ballots that were accessible to differently-abled voters before June 1, 2022. Downey was the first to learn that this new attempt at assistive technology would ultimately fail in helping her cast a ballot.
“I have three different screen readers on my computer and no matter what I tried it wouldn’t let me check a box for a candidate,” she said, describing her recent at-home voting experience.
Downey lives in Erie County, one of 57 counties across the state that implemented an accessible PDF ballot for the June and August elections. The resource was intended to allow voters with visual disabilities or paralysis to easily cast a vote at home. Many, like Downey, rely on screen readers that ended up being incompatible with the system to mark their ballots.
Screen readers are assistive software programs that help blind or visually impaired people to read the text on a computer screen with a speech synthesizer or braille display. Paired with a keyboard, users can send commands to their screen reader by pressing different combinations of keys. Each keystroke informs the selection of phrases and sections of a document or webpage to read.
In any other scenario, Downey said, her programs usually work effectively, but filling out her ballot proved to be an insurmountable challenge for the software and Downey. After a series of back-and-forth emails with her local Board of Elections office, Downey called the nonprofit advocacy group National Federation of the Blind (NFB) for assistance.
Her call served as a driving force behind the group’s reevaluation of the Board of Elections’ accessible ballot and their continued advocacy on the topic.
Among the advocates she spoke to was Rasheta Bunting, president of a local National Federation of the Blind chapter, who served as a litigant on the Disability Rights New York lawsuit. She said that in the six months since the lawsuit’s settlement, she has consistently fielded functionality complaints from users of the new system.
The Board of Elections was supposed to have something accessible within a short amount of time, but honestly, to me, it is still not accessible,” she said. “We had to go back to the Board of Elections and just let them know this was still not working.”
Bunting said that it is not uncommon for some screen reading technology to have a hard time picking up content on PDF documents. However, the exacerbation of the issue, she said, comes from government leaders “with sight,” who don’t recognize or understand the barrier.
Finding a new program, she said, would be a necessary step to overcome this challenge in November.
In 2020, the Disability Rights New York lawsuit detailed that an at-home digital ballot was needed for individuals with print disabilities because otherwise they are forced to “choose between their health and their right to vote.” Two years later, disability advocates say that these compounding challenges point to a broader-reaching lack of investment in the disability vote.
In their initial complaint regarding voter access and privacy, Disability Rights New York criticized New York’s Absentee Voting program because it relied on a paper ballot that voters would fill out using a pen or marker and return by mail. Ultimately, this would require individuals with print disabilities – blindness, low-vision, dyslexia or physical challenges holding or using books and printed materials – to rely on another person to aid them in filling out a ballot if they did not want to, or could not, cast their vote at the polls.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit detailed that this requirement uniquely infringed upon their rights, citing the New York State Constitution’s guarantee of a private ballot to support their claims.
By solely providing a paper ballot resource for individuals who wanted to cast their ballots absentee, Disability Rights New York said the state was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act precedents set by other disability rights laws such as Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), which prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life and state that an “accessible voting system must provide the same opportunity for access and participation, including privacy and independence, that other voters receive.”
According to a 2022 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 120,000 New Yorkers over the age of 18 have a print disability in which they experience blindness or serious difficulty seeing, even when wearing glasses. The group represents a small fraction of the 21% of New Yorkers who have disabilities related to mobility, cognition, hearing or who primarily rely on living assistance to fulfill daily tasks.
However, voters with print disabilities are not only providing complaints regarding absentee voting accessibility, in-person voting has also posed significant barriers.
“I think one of the biggest problems in the American electoral system is accessible ballot marking machines and having poll workers who don’t know how to work them,” said Mike Robinson, President of The New York National Federation of the Blind. “I’ve heard plenty of stories from voters who get to their polling places and the machine is broken or people just don’t know how to use them.”
Bunting shared this sentiment, writing about her experience voting in 2020 in a testimony to the New York State Campaign Finance Board. In her brief essay, Bunting detailed going to her polling location and being greeted by a poll worker who repeatedly asked her to guide them through the process of using a ballot marking device. When she encountered the challenge of broken headphones that prevented her from hearing audio voting cues, the poll worker then asked if her 16-year-old daughter could assist her in filling out the ballot instead. Experiences like this one, she explained, are one of many reasons voters like Downey might choose to cast a ballot at home.
“I haven’t voted in person in years. It’s much less stressful to be able to sit down and do it on my computer,” Downey said. Sitting at a polling location “where everyone can cast a ballot easily except for you,” is an unfair burden that disabled voters often have to bear.
Ballot marking devices are voting machines used by disabled voters at polling locations across the state. They include technology like Sip-N-Puff and Rocker Paddle, audio-guided, assistive voting technology for individuals who are unable to use their hands or have limited mobility.
With the November midterm election upon New Yorkers, Erie County, where Downey lives, has adopted a new accessible voting system. Enhanced Voting is a web-based ballot that supports visually-impaired voters with screen reader-compatible audio ballots, various color contrast options, multiple text sizes, and a wide variety of languages.
Prompted by the lawsuit settlement and testimony of disability advocates, the New York State Board of Elections transitioned away from the accessible PDF ballot after the August primary. Starting this month, Enhanced Voting is required statewide for counties that had not previously invested in programs compliant with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1. New York City, for example, uses a similar program called Democracy Live.
Jennifer Wilson, a spokesperson for the Board of Elections, described the new program’s implementation. She said that the new program meets and seeks to exceed the demands of the Disability Rights New York settlement while also taking into account the concerns of voters who used the accessible PDF for the primaries. In their vetting process, they sought a system that would fit within the state budget and had a proven success rate in other states.
For several years, enhanced voting has been used in states like Oklahoma, Virginia, Kentucky, New Jersey, Ohio, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Illinois.
Statewide, efforts to bring awareness to barriers facing disabled voters demand the attention of public officials and state agencies. Last year, New York City established its inaugural Accessible Voting Advisory Committee, a group tasked with advising the NYC Board of Elections on accessibility issues at over 1,200 polling locations in the city and providing recommendations for expanding and improving access in the five boroughs.
Bunting serves as one of the board’s 12 members, her work pushing for expanded accessibility resources beyond those provided by the settled lawsuit.
Though advocates see this change as just one small step towards a more representative and empowered electorate in New York, Downey has already cast her ballot for the November midterms and described her first Enhanced Voting experience as “delightful, quick and easy.” She was able to mark her selections for each candidate and ballot question, print her ballot and mail it in with the secure election envelope.
“I’m glad I was able to say something and that it’s getting a little better with each election. There’s still plenty of work to do.”
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.