Here’s how voting should work for blind voters like Ruth Sager: She walks into her polling place in Pikesville, Maryland, tells poll workers she wants to vote on an electronic voting machine instead of a paper ballot, and is handed a card she can place in the machine to begin voting.
Using headphones, the 68-year-old listens to the choices in the various contests and, with a hand-held controller, makes selections by pressing a raised arrow and buttons in other shapes. The digital narrator confirms every selection before the machine prints a paper record of her finished ballot that she gives to poll workers.
But that’s not what happened when Sager, a retired rehabilitation program instructor for the blind, tried to vote in the 2018 midterm elections.
When she arrived at her Baltimore-area polling place, the only electronic voting machine in the precinct was not working. The only thing officials could offer her was to have two election judges — one serving as a witness — walk her through the paper ballot, reading every option aloud and marking her choices for her.
Not only did the poll worker have trouble pronouncing names and often skip party affiliations and candidates in crowded races, Sager said, but it was a complete violation of her privacy.
“It is their job to make certain the election equipment functions for all voters, not just for some voters,” said Sager, who has since filed a lawsuit. “If this can happen to me, it can happen to anybody else.”
Voting machines are the most accessible ballot options for voters with disabilities. But paper ballots are the preferred voting method among election security experts, who worry voting machines are susceptible to hacking attempts. In this current climate of heightened fears of election disruption, officials are finding it difficult to balance security and accessibility, especially for voters with disabilities.
The recent push toward paper has left voters with disabilities behind, said Michelle Bishop, a disability advocacy specialist for voting rights at the National Disability Rights Network. Marking a paper ballot with a pen or pencil may seem easy to able-bodied voters, she said. But holding a pen, seeing text on a ballot and so on may not be possible for many people with disabilities.
“Between security and accessibility, one is not more important than the other,” Bishop said. “We have to be able to do both if we really want to make democracy work.”
A voting system that relies on paper ensures that elections are auditable and creates a fail-safe against potential hacks, said Marian Schneider, president of Verified Voting, an election security organization that has long advocated for a verified paper trail at the ballot box.
“There’s always a risk that someone is going to interfere with the process,” she said of electronic voting machines.
For Sager, the accessibility problem is nothing new. In fact, in the 25 years she’s regularly voted, she can recall just two times when the voting machine was up and running and poll workers were properly trained to help her use it.
Sager’s 2018 experience would have been different if her polling place had had more than one electronic voting machine, said Chris Danielsen, director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind, a Maryland-based group.
Danielsen believes electronic voting machines should be the default option for all voters, with and without disabilities.
“All voters need to be using ballot marking devices, unless they opt out and want to use paper,” he said. “We cannot have a separate-but-equal system.”
Sager, along with two other voters and the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland, filed a federal lawsuit against the Maryland Board of Elections last month to force the state to make machines the default voting method instead of paper ballots.
If everyone had to use an electronic voting machine, the suit argued, poll workers would be properly trained to use the equipment and there would be plenty of backup machines if one failed. Voters with disabilities wouldn’t be segregated, and their privacy would be protected.
“Secrecy does not have to come at the price of accessibility,” said Jessie Weber, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
Donna Duncan, assistant deputy for election policy at the Maryland Board of Elections, said she could not comment on litigation. Maryland Assistant Attorney General Andrea Trento referred Stateline to the court arguments.
The state in 2016 switched from electronic voting machines that left no paper trail to a system of paper ballots tallied by electronic scanners. Election security experts have relentlessly pushed for states to switch to a paper-ballot system that is immune from hacks and other security breaches. Requiring that voting machines have a paper trail is a step in the right direction, they say, but those are still vulnerable to electronic interference.
In a Sept. 4 memorandum supporting the Maryland Board of Elections’ motion to dismiss, Trento and other top state election officials argued the lawsuit does not offer “a plausible claim disabled voters were denied meaningful access to the secret ballot as a result of their disabilities.”
Further, officials said any failures by poll workers were isolated and not statewide or systemic. Even though Sager had to be assisted during voting, state officials argued, that does not violate federal disability and voting protections.
Many of the issues outlined in the lawsuit were addressed in a new Maryland Board of Elections policy adopted earlier this year, officials said. The new policy requires that at least five voters in each precinct cast their ballots on voting machines instead of paper ballots, to ensure the privacy of voters with disabilities who must rely on machines.
The policy also changes the way the machines are presented to voters. Voting machines are no longer described as “accessible” devices, but merely “if needed,” which officials see as a neutral alternative not specific to voters with disabilities. The state also is increasing the training it gives poll workers about the machines.
The lawsuit in Maryland is in its early stages. A month after filing the federal suit in early August, the state filed a motion to dismiss. Weber, the attorney for the plaintiffs, responded to that motion this week.
In a second memorandum supporting the motion to dismiss, top Maryland officials noted that the state could procure enough new voting machines in time for the 2020 primary and general elections if it ordered them by Oct. 4. The state has 3,500 voting machines but would need 18,000 to switch its system.
This would cost the state $12 million, according to state officials, which “exceeds the benefits” of switching Maryland’s election system to satisfy the lawsuit.
The tension between security and accessibility has arisen in other states too.
In 22 states, the default method of voting is paper ballots. And in all but two states at least some jurisdictions use paper ballots in their voting process. This is seen as significant progress among election security advocates worried about voting machine hacking.
Schneider of Verified Voting said there are not a lot of great choices on the market for secure voting machines. But she hopes that will soon change with better technology.
One of the biggest frustrations for disability rights activists such as Danielsen, of the National Federation of the Blind, is the “fatalistic view among security advocates that there’s no resolving the security aspect of voting machines.”
“There’s nothing magic about paper,” Danielsen said. “Rather than trying to solve the security risk with the machines, the alleged security community is just throwing its hands up and saying, ‘We’re going to have a separate system for people with disabilities, and, in effect, it doesn’t matter if our votes get targeted.’”
But there doesn’t have to be this division, said Bishop of the National Disability Rights Network.
Figuring out an election system that is both safe and accessible will require a dedicated effort by officials and, inevitably, an investment, she said. But the federal government does not seem serious about spending the money, she said.
Last year, Congress allocated $380 million for election administration in the states, which they used to buy new equipment and tighten security by implementing post-election audits and training staff. But the allocation fell well short for what is truly needed in the states, said Schneider, adding that America has “woefully underfunded elections.”
The lawsuit in Maryland, which could force the state to buy enough machines for 2020, seems “impractical,” said Schneider, considering the high costs.
She hopes election officials around the country can find a middle ground. Having only electronic voting machines at a polling place risks long lines if there are malfunctions, just as an all-paper-ballot system may disenfranchise voters with disabilities.
“Both of the extremes are too extreme,” she said. “They may not meet the needs of all voters, and that’s why there needs to be a choice at the polling place.”
If states make sure that a certain number of voters use an alternative voting system, it solves many of the privacy frustrations voiced by disability rights activists, Schneider said. Poll workers, Verified Voting suggests, should encourage voters to use whichever voting method they feel most comfortable with.
Still, the conversation between election security and disability rights advocates has stalled, said Bishop. “I don’t know why it’s been so difficult,” she said. “There has to be a willingness on both sides to hammer that out and figure out what the right solutions are right now.”
“It doesn’t seem to be an insurmountable problem to solve,” she said, “but I think there needs to be a conversation about it.”