ballot marking device

NYC Board of Elections

A still from a New York City Board of Elections training video showing the ballot-marking device used by some voters with disabilities.

When Ian Foley goes to the polls on election day he casts his ballot with a piece of assistive technology called a ballot marking device. Foley can’t use traditional paper ballots because he’s legally blind, so the ballot marking device gives him an accessible way to read and mark his ballot.

“That machine will basically walk us through the ballot, each step: like ‘column one, line one: here’s the Democrat running for village council,’” Foley, who’s legislative co-chair for the American Council of the Blind New York (ACBNY), said.

However, going to polling sites in June for the primaries, and possibly in November for the general election, this year is a far more dangerous proposition amid the COVID-19 crisis. 

The New York State Board of Elections cancelled its Democratic presidential primary for this year Monday over this very concern, citing the fact that Joe Biden is the only candidate left in the race as the reason. However, the state will still be holding a primary on June 23 for congressional and state offices.

Foley, along with another individual and several disability advocacy groups, filed a Department of Justice complaint last week over Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order 202.15, which allows all New Yorkers to apply for an absentee ballot for the primaries. The advocacy groups and individuals filed the complaint because the governor’s order only allows for mailing in paper ballots and doesn’t provide an accessible way for those with visual impairments or dexterity issues to vote privately. They’re asking the DOJ to compel the New York State Board of Elections (BOE) to provide accessible methods for absentee voting

The complainants argue that New York state has the capacity to make voting privately both safe and accessible for disabled individuals by June because accessible voting methods already exist and are being used in other states.

“I see no reason why the technology hasn’t been implemented up until this point,” said Karen Blachowicz, president of ACBNY.

The complainants include ACBNY, the American Council of the Blind (ACB), the National Center on Independent Living (NCIL), the New York Association on Independent Living (NYAIL), as well as individuals Foley and Kerri Regan. According to census data from 2016 interpreted by Cornell University’s Employment and Disability Institute (EDI), New York State had 418,500 people with a visual disability as of that year. Some subset of that population would be among the state’s 11.7 million registered voters.

Paper ballots with standard sized print are difficult or impossible for those who are visually impaired and blind to read. But, Foley said, even with assistive technology like screen-readers that help visually impaired people read in everyday life, they still don’t have any way to mark their choices on the ballot. Additionally, those with dexterity issues who use features like sip-and-puff systems on ballot marking devices, also have no way to mark paper ballots.

“To vote on an absentee ballot you need to be able to read the font, to fill it out, sign it and mail it in,” said Meghan Parker, the director of advocacy for NYAIL. “So, the concern is that people won’t be able to vote privately and independently.”

The end result is that voters with disabilities have to rely on a family member or a friend to read and mark their ballot, which can lead to a number of issues.

“Imagine being in a household where one person is a Republican and one person is a Democrat and one of them needs the assistance of the other in order to complete their ballot,” Foley said. “You hope you have the trust in the person that’s assisting you that they’re going to complete the ballad as you wish, but there’s no guarantee of that.”

Advocates point to the work that other states have done to make voting remotely accessible to those with disabilities as a roadmap for New York. For example, Oregon offers an electronic ballot for people with disabilities that can be read by screen readers and marked with a mouse or spacebar. The ballot can also be read and marked with tablets, which have voiceover functions and allow users to easily increase the font size.

Jarret Berg, who’s a lawyer and the co-founder of Vote Early NY, said the switch to an online system is possible but that it comes with difficulties, like voting security and access to a printer, so it can’t be the only solution for the primaries. It will take a combination of accessible voting methods, Berg said, across different counties to make this work in time for June. He added that from a scale perspective residential facilities that service large numbers of people with disabilities should be given the resources to help their residents vote.

“Let’s say you have a large residential facility that has a lot of disabled folks, if there’s a large enough volume, the people that run that facility should be in contact with the Board of Elections,” Berg said. “Let’s get them some equipment to help them, even if it’s just for a couple of hours on a couple of days.”

Susan Dooha, who’s executive director of the Center for the Independence of the Disabled New York (CIDNY), said that one option is for polling sites to remain open to disabled voters so they can still vote on ballot marking devices. Dooha added that there would need to be guidance for how polling sites would be sanitized so people with disabilities can vote safely amid the pandemic.

Although New York’s Democratic presidential primary and special elections were cancelled for June 23, there are still important congressional and state races in most of the state’s 62 counties. Some of the most high profile races include the contests for the congressional seats of Reps. Jose Serrano, Elliot Engel and Carolyn Maloney, who all represent parts of New York City and Westchester. State officers are also on the primary ballot including State Sens. Michael Gianaris and Julia Salazar as well as State Assembly Members Yuh-Line Niou and Aravella Simotas among many others.