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For people with visual impairments, truly secret ballots are elusive

By Carmen Heredia Rodriguez, Kaiser Health News, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

Norma Crosby remembers when she relied on blind faith to cast her vote.

The 64-year-old Texan was born virtually without sight, a side effect of her mother catching rubella while pregnant with her. Friends and relatives stood beside her and filled out her ballot at polling precincts for more than half of her voting life. Then, accessible voting machines rolled out around the year 2000, enabling her to vote in person on her own.

Now, the COVID-19 pandemic makes going to the polls a risky proposition for Crosby. She also has a condition called sarcoidosis that requires her to take immunosuppressant drugs, she said. However, the state does not have a mail-in voting system that accommodates Crosby's visual impairment.

"It communicates to me that I'm not valued as much as other citizens," said Crosby, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Texas, "that I'm a second-class citizen."

A projected 7 million Americans who are eligible to vote in the presidential election live with visual impairments, according to researchers from Rutgers university. For those, like Crosby, who also deal with illnesses that place them at a higher risk of falling seriously ill with COVID-19, voting this year will be especially difficult.

The pandemic exposed glaring holes in absentee and mail-in voting systems around the nation. In some jurisdictions, voters who have what's known as print disabilities — conditions that make it difficult to process printed content, such as blindness, low vision or learning or physical disabilities — could not cast a ballot remotely without asking for help, thereby compromising their privacy.

 

Outcry and lawsuits from disability advocates prompted at least 11 states to update their mail-in and absentee ballot systems in an attempt to accommodate these voters. Some changes enable voters to use text-reading software with their ballots and submit them online through a secure portal.

However, some states have been slow to address these needs. In Iowa, voters cannot vote confidentially using the mail-in system because the state requires the use of paper ballots. Texas residents like Crosby must find someone to fill out their ballot and mail it in or take it to the sole drop box in the county — all during a pandemic that has required people to physically distance themselves to stay safe.

"We should not have to choose," said Chris Danielsen, director of public relations for the National Federation of the Blind, "between endangering our health and going to the polls in person, or not voting at all."

Several federal laws affirm the right of all people, regardless of disability, to vote in an accessible manner. The Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, requires state and local governments to make the voting process user-friendly to voters of various abilities. This includes providing accessible parking spaces and placing voting machines where people using wheelchairs have enough space to move and at a height reachable by all.

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