Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Voting while disabled

Another guest post from Blue Lily, crossposted at The Gimp Parade:

Today was election day in my small town. There were only three school bond proposals to decide and unfortunately they don't have a chance in hell of passing, but I went to vote just the same. Because I can. I turned down the absentee ballot option because I wanted to go vote at the poll and I was sure access here, at this time, wouldn't be a problem.

With September primaries quickly coming up, the fiasco of Florida's hanging chads still haunting election judges everywhere, and the requirements to provide fully accessible voting for all varieties of disabled people, there's a considerable amount of voting angst among public officials and private citizens who keep up on voting issues.

HAVA, the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002, requires that every polling place in the country provide a voting system that persons with disabilities can use independently and privately. Much voting for disabled people has been known to occur at a table in public, with one or two poll workers assisting with the voting procedure. This system lacks privacy and provides no way for blind citizens to know if the poll workers truly marked the ballot as instructed.

Enter the machines. Since HAVA means every voting district in the country needs some way to meet federal requirements, many business opportunities sprouted for manufacturers of electronic voting machines. But acquiring voting machines that satisfy disability access, voter trust, and accuracy has been a nightmare for voting officials around the country. Citizens are suing the states for better set-ups, states are suing the companies manufacturing the machines for failures of all kinds, and September looks closer than ever.

It seems certain that disabled voters will be the ones to bear the brunt of this problem. In New York City, there will be just five polling places where disabled people can hope to find total access this fall. That's one polling site in each borough for a population of people largely dependent on public transportation that doesn't do well accommodating them either.

One solution to this whole mess that seems to be gaining currency is voting by mail. Absentee voting is being expanded to "permanent" absentee voting and then to "no excuse" absentee balloting and voting by mail for all. Many claim it's a much better system and supposedly many disabled people would prefer to always vote by mail.

I think it's a bad idea. Oh, it might be smart in the short-term while the numerous problems with voting are minimized, but in the long-term it's maybe bad for democracy and certainly bad for the disabled. If the solution to problems of accessibility is to not require anyone to show up, then all the churches and rec centers and other polling sites that are not currently accessible will have less pressure to become so. And all the poll workers who will be trained on how to interact with disabled people to help them vote will never be trained. And all the disabled people who rarely get out of the house because of Medicare homebound laws* and lack of transportation, will have one less reason to interact with the world. All this equals less accessibility and freedom for the disabled in the long-run.

Additionally, I believe the assurance of maximizing privacy and actual casting of the votes disabled people choose themselves can only happen at polling sites. This may be true for many women as well, if they are in coercive relationships. A private vote taken at a public place ensures society's most vulnerable citizens the freedom to make their own political decisions. Should disabled persons require human assistance to vote after all, at least it is legally required that someone impartial -- or two people, one from each party -- assist. If privacy must be sacrificed in any way, as it most certainly will be for many severely disabled people if everyone votes by mail, there should be neutrality built into the assistance.

Of course, voting that discriminates against the disabled hasn't been resolved even with the ADA being 16 years old. There's no reason to expect any future public outcry about voting by mail -- if there is one -- will center on the rights of disabled persons now. But there are other reasons it remains a bad idea.


*From an article at New Mobility (italics mine): In 2002, at the 10-year anniversary of the ADA implementation... President Bush (announced), "Today Medicare recipients who are considered homebound may lose coverage if they go to a baseball game--which, of course, I encourage them to do--or meet with a friend or go to a family reunion. So today I announce we're clarifying Medicare policy. So people who are considered homebound can occasionally take part in their communities without fear of losing their benefits."