ragged edge magazine online

ABOUT US   |   SUBSCRIBE    |   E-MAIL EDITOR   |   HOME      



Read Waiting -- Again -- For the Vote

Read Joe Harcz's "No-tech voting assistance for disabled creates separate and unequal situation" in the Oct. 3, 2004 Flint Journal

"I must depend on someone to help me," writes Angela Bone. "Usually this becomes an embarrassing situation . . . READ LETTERS.



Joe Harcz writes about problems in Michigan -- but his comments are meant for all of us across the U.S. who face inaccessible voting once again this November.

photo of one man helping another at a table It is time that we all ask our election officials just why some voters have access, while for others access is denied.

Would you like assistance marking your ballot?

By Joe Harcz

Come November, Michigan citizens will go to the polls to vote in what many consider the most significant presidential election in our lifetime. There are, after all, grand issues of war and peace, jobs and the economy, health and education to deal with.

These voters, of course, will take it for granted that they will be able to vote with secrecy and independently free from overt or covert intrusion in the election process itself.

All Michigan citizens will be able to do these things -- except for those of us with disabilities, who once again will be given a second-class access to both polling places and the ballot itself.

The problem for citizens who are blind, visually impaired or who have severe manual disabilities is that we cannot access independently the printed word or traditional voting systems. The problem facing people who use wheelchairs and other mobility devices is that many polling places lack basic physical access -- ranging from adequately marked accessible parking to lack of ramps to doorways too narrow to negotiate.

Imagine that you are blind and are presented with a paper ballot. Or simply close your eyes at the next election and you'll see -- or, more precisely, not see -- the problem. Then imagine that you use a wheelchair and then are confronted with a step at the polling place entrance or a flight of stairs and you'll get a sense of the problem.

There are those in Michigan who argue that accommodations are in place: the blind person has the right to choose a person to mark the ballot. There is so-called curbside service for voters who use wheelchairs.

But I ask every gentle reader of this saga: Would you like my assistance in marking the ballot? Would you feel secure that your choice had been made? Would you feel that your secrecy and equal rights were "accommodated"? Would you feel comfortable with announcing your choices to the entire polling place? These so-called accommodations are not only separate, but also unequal.

Now there are existing technologies -- in use in several states right now -- like "touch screen" machines that "talk" using headphones, have a built-in capacity for large print and can be adapted to use with various mechanical aids for people with manual impairments. Thus the non-disabled and disabled alike can vote on terms of equality. In the states of Maryland, Georgia, North Carolina, Hawaii, Nevada and Washington, DC, all voters will have access to the ballot, including those with disabilities. In dozens of other states including California, Texas and even the land of the hanging chad, Florida, new accessible systems are being used, affording access for the first time to millions of disabled voters.

Several states have conducted polling-place surveys and have funded the removal of barriers to the polls, requiring that they be removed by the general election. Both of these general access items were to have been accomplished under the Americans with Disabilities Act (which celebrated its fourteenth anniversary last summer) years ago, but many states and localities like Michigan have routinely ignored that civil rights mandate, often claiming lack of funding.

The Help America Vote Act was passed in 2002 and, aside from election reform items like replacing error-prone systems such as punch card systems,. it was to have funded acquisition of accessible voting devices and removal of barriers to the polls. In fact the federal government has already released billions to states for just that. Michigan's Secretary of State, Terri Lynn Land, has already received $44 million in HAVA funds.

Twenty-five counties in Michigan have already purchased new paper ballot based electronically counted systems. Of course these systems are not independently usable by people who are blind or who have other disabilities. The state has also funded a polling place accessibility survey, but many election districts have not even bothered to conduct the survey.

Moreover, Sec. Land has not issued one thin dime for acquiring even one voting machine that is usable by people with disabilities. She has not certified for use in November any devices that are accessible, nor has she set up a process for releasing funds for barrier removal by the time of the general election.

This has hamstrung election officials. Genesee County (Flint, MI) Bureau of Elections head, Rob Coffman, reported to this writer that he was willing and able to install some accessible touch screen systems in "four or five precincts" by November and at no or little cost to the taxpayer. But after a meeting with Sec. Land and State Bureau of Elections Director. Christopher Thomas,. Coffman reported that they will not certify these systems for use by November. Thus he cannot install or use these systems, as it would violate state law.

I have formally requested from the Secretary of State's office an accounting of just where and how the already-in-hand millions are going. What are her plans for spending some portion of the $44 million of federal funds for accessible voting systems and accessible polling places? She has yet to answer these basic questions.

The bottom line? Tens of thousands of voters with disabilities will be denied equal access to the election process. We are being asked to wait until 2006 -- or beyond --for what non-disabled voters take for granted today.

Voting is a civil and human right. People with disabilities should have the same fundamental rights as everyone else. I'm not talking abstractions here. I'm talking about your grandmother who has become visually impaired in her senior years. I'm talking about your sons and daughters who come back from Iraq in a wheelchair. I'm talking about your neighbor who is blind. I'm talking about your father who has MS. I'm talking about you.

It is time that we all ask our state and local election officials just why some voters have access, and for others access is denied.

When I go to my polling place on November 2, as a blind person I will be given a ballot that I cannot use independently and I will not have the same right as others to cast it in secrecy. The tragedy of this is that there is both ample funding and the means to solve this problem. But both have been ignored,. and access is once again denied.

Posted September 21, 2004.

Joe Harcz is a member of the Michigan Council of the Blind and Visually Impaired, and serves on the Consumer involvement Council of the Michigan Commission for the Blind.

WHAT DO YOU THINK of what you've just read? Click to tell us.

Readers respond...

As a legally blind individual myself I can certianly understand how the author feels. Here in South Carolina we have the old-fashioned paper ballots and they are not in braille, therefore I must depend on someone to help me. Usually this becomes an embarrassing situation -- someone reading the ballot to me then asking me do you want to vote for this person. I feel that my vote then has become no longer a secret ballot because everyone is secretly listening to the converstation to see what is going on. I am also not assured that the vote I made is for the right person because I cannot see where to punch the hole, I must rely on that other person to help me find the right hole, at which point I may be misdirected to the wrong person and voted the wrong way.

South Carolina claims that it does not have the money in the budget to rectify this and does nothing to assure the blind individuals in the state get to vote in private. I still vote and will always vote and do encourage others to vote but it does become frustrating.

Thank you very much for this chance to speak.

Angela Bone, Pelion, SC

I was recently involved with the survey process mentioned in this article, and can testify to the fact that very few, if any, of the polling places in the Genesee County area are truly accessible. Problems abound, ranging from poorly designed or improperly identified accessible parking to doors that are less than 32" to precincts that are located on an inaccessible stage area, in the case of the article author's polling place. It is unbelievable that the County Seat and the largest municipality in Genesee County chose not to respond to the survey. The City of Flint, which is experiencing many other issues, decided not to have any of its precincts surveyed.

Many of the jurisdictions did not even respond to the state's request for the surveys to be done, since it was not required. Some of them responded by sending an affidavit to the Secretary of State certifying their complete compliance. One of these jurisdictions was one that I had visited and had found numerous problems. Yet they told the State that there were no accessibility issues. I know for a fact that at least one of the precincts is not accessible. Where I vote, there is inadequate parking, a step up into the building, a bar separating the doors and many other issues, including machines that are not accessible. I have multiple disabilities, including being an amputee, but I am thankful that I am able to access my polling place. Many others cannot and therefore do not bother to vote.

Gary Kidd, Flint, MI

Back to home page

© Copyright 2004 by The Advocado Press

This Website produced by Cliffwood Organic Works