Stateline Story

Disabled Disappointed With Election Reform Proposals

  • August 17, 2001
  • By Daniel Seligson

While a host of election reform task forces and commissions from the public and private sector have offered recommendations for improving the way the U.S. votes, none have called for a federally-mandated right for access to polls and the opportunity to cast a ballot independently and privately. 

For Carla Ruschival, voting is more an act of faith than an exercise in democracy.

Blind since birth, she relies on poll workers to read and fill out ballots for her at a precinct in Louisville, Ky.

Sometimes that means voting out in the open. Other times, she endures the subtle partisan comments of poll workers verifying her vote, including, "Are you sure?" and "You really want to vote for him?" Not being able to see her paper ballot, she said the odds are always against her. If a vote is accurate, it's public. If it's private, it could be altered by the political whims of her helper.

"In 37 years, I have never cast an independent, secret ballot," she said.

Like many voters with disabilities, Ruschival hoped the public spotlight cast on voting following the 2000 presidential elections would lead to real change.

So far, Ruschival and advocates for the disabled have been disappointed by an election reform process that at best recognizes their needs, at worst ignores them, but never quite meets their demands.

While a host of election reform task forces and commissions from the public and private sector have offered recommendations for improving the way the U.S. votes, none have called for a federally-mandated right for access to polls and the opportunity to cast a ballot independently and privately.

"They have all listened to us, but there's a difference between listening and acting. Each of the election associations are essentially saying Not In My Backyard.' They want money, but they don't want regulations," said Jim Dickson, vice president of governmental affairs for the American Association of People with Disabilities Vote Project.

"Mandates" quickly emerged as an ugly word in the election reform debate. For states, mandates mean federal bureaucrats stepping in and taking over their traditional administrative responsibility. For the federal government, it means overseeing a massive undertaking that has relied on the expertise of local officials for more than 200 years.

People with disabilities, however, argue that without a mandated right to accessible polls and voting machines, states will never spend the cash to comply, and those with physical barriers to casting private ballots at polling places will continue to be marginalized on election day.

A 1998 study by the Center for an Accessible Society found that people with disabilities are 20 percent less likely to vote than those without. It also found that if people with disabilities voted at the same rate as those without, there would have been nearly 5 million more voters in the 1998 congressional elections, raising turnout by 2.5 percent.

Dickson said he believes many disabled voters will simply not return to the polls after they have experienced a problem. "That's what makes this a civil rights issue," he said.

Task forces comprised of academics, election officials, state lawmakers and legal experts have recognized the problem, but not in the way many advocates for the disabled believe is sufficient. Recent reports include:

  • A task force sponsored by the Houston-based Election Center that does not mention access for disabled voters at all;
  • An extensive study of voting machines by the two leading engineering schools in the country, California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that calls for a move from punch cards to optical scan voting machines. The machines use paper ballots, requiring blind voters to have helpers at the polls;
  • Reports that make strong statements about ensuring access for people with disabilities, including a report by Georgetown Law School's Constitution Project, the National Conference of State Legislatures, the National Association of Secretaries of State and the National Commission on Federal Election Reform, stop short of mandating compliance.  

State legislatures have shied away from mandating touch-screen systems as well. Florida and Georgia, which have opted to upgrade their voting systems, will move to optical scan machines first because of the high cost of accessible touch-screen systems. Indiana has established a fund to purchase new machines, but does not stipulate whether those machines be accessible.

Only Maryland will have fully accessible, touch-screen systems in place by the 2004 presidential elections, if not sooner.

"It's disappointing in a sense because you had hoped when these commissions were set up they would look at the whole issue, including the needs of people with disabilities," said Melanie Brunson, a lobbyist for the American Council for the Blind. "The move to [recommend] optical scanners is a particularly disturbing trend."

The National Organization on Disability reports more than 90 percent of voting machines used around the country offer technology to allow sight-impaired people to cast independent ballots.

As Ruschival learned at a conference earlier this year, voting machine manufacturers have come up with ways to allow the blind to vote. Machines can talk, offer Braille keypads and read back votes before casting ballots.

"They were wonderful," she said.

Wonderful, but expensive. And according to some election experts, inaccurate, impractical and too reliant on technology that could soon change to be a viable option for voting around the country. While Maryland and perhaps a few scattered precincts around the country will buy disabled-accessible touch-screen voting systems, most will not.

Dickson and other advocates for the disabled say the best hope for accessible machines and polling places is a Senate bill by Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., that would make accessibility a federal mandate.

His bill, however, has no Republican support and that does not bode well for success in the Republican-controlled House.

Despite that bill's potential problems and despite the disappointments in the early phases of election reform many in the disabled community still believe that 2000 will be the last time they rely on someone else to cast their votes for president.

"I'm optimistic," Dickson said. "The change won't be voluntary [by states or localities], but I think we still have a chance."