EXERCISING YOUR RIGHT TO VOTE PRIVATELY & INDEPENDENTLY
By Lou Ann Blake
Reprinted from The Sounding Board
Editor’s Note: Lou Ann Blake from the National Center submitted the following article on the Help America Vote Act and blind people being able to exercise their right to vote. A video on the subject is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i_yTfEO2Kz8.
As the 2016 election season approaches, it is extremely important that voters who are blind or visually impaired know their rights and how to apply them when barriers to the right to vote privately and independently are encountered at the polling place. While sighted voters are able to take for granted the right to vote privately and independently, it is not uncommon for blind and visually impaired voters to encounter barriers to the exercise of this right at the polling place. Poorly trained poll workers and the absence of an accessible voting system may result in the blind voter having to vote with assistance. However, when a blind or visually impaired voter knows her rights and how to apply that knowledge, barriers encountered at the polling place can frequently be removed.
Your Right to Vote Privately and Independently Prior to the passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002, voters who were blind or visually impaired had to rely on sighted assistance to mark their ballot. HAVA has enabled voters with disabilities to fully exercise the fundamental right to vote privately and independently by requiring that every polling place have at least one accessible voting system for all federal elections. In addition, many states have enacted legislation to require at least one accessible voting system in each polling place for all state and local elections.
What to Expect at Your Polling Place
If you are voting on Election Day, you will need to go to the polling place for your election district or precinct. The location of your polling place will be indicated on your voter registration card. You may also be able to find your polling place location on the website of your local or state board of elections.
Once you have arrived at your polling place, you will need to check in with poll workers by giving your name and requesting an accessible voting system.
Be aware that you may need to repeat your request to use an accessible voting system. After your check-in process is complete, a poll worker will show you where the accessible voting system is located and hand you the headphones and control box. Once the audio ballot has started, the poll worker should walk away so you can vote in private.
What to Do When Things go Wrong
Poll workers have many responsibilities on Election Day. In addition, the training they receive on the accessible voting system is frequently insufficient to equip them with the knowledge they need to set up and operate the system, and to resolve any problems that may occur.
Consequently, it is not uncommon for blind and low vision voters to encounter poll workers who do not know how to set up or operate the accessible voting system.
If upon your arrival at the polling place for a federal election, poll workers tell you that the accessible voting system is not available or not working, or if the system malfunctions while you are voting, it is extremely important that you politely, but firmly, insist on your right to vote privately and independently. Request that an accessible system be brought to the polling place, or that a technician be sent to the polling place to repair the system. If poll workers offer to assist you in marking a paper ballot, politely decline this offer, and firmly, but politely, repeat your desire to vote privately and independently using an accessible system.
In many cases when a voter is patient and politely, but firm, insists on her right to vote using an accessible system, poll workers are able to resolve the problem. However, if poll workers have made every attempt to honor your request, but are unable to provide an accessible voting system that operates properly, you should still exercise your right to vote by voting with assistance.
If you are unable to vote privately and independently on an accessible voting system at your polling place during a federal election because there is no accessible system available or the system is not operating, the most important thing you can do is to file a HAVA complaint with your state or local board of elections. While HAVA guarantees the right of blind and visually impaired voters to vote privately and independently, it does not provide them a means to enforce this right through private action when it is violated. Therefore, filing a HAVA complaint is the most effective way blind voters can be sure that problems are brought to the attention of election officials and the U.S. Department of Justice, which has authority to enforce HAVA. Because there is no private right of action under HAVA, it is imperative that blind voters who are not able to vote privately and independently at their polling place during a federal election file a HAVA complaint so that the Justice Department has a true picture of the problems that voters with disabilities are experiencing.
Make Your Voice Heard
The United States Constitution guarantees the right of all blind and visually impaired citizens to vote, and the exercise of this right is vital to the function of our democratic form of government. With the passage of HAVA, it is now possible for blind and visually impaired citizens to exercise their right to vote both privately and independently. Making your voice heard through voting is imperative because state and federal elected officials implement policies and pass legislation that directly affect our lives as blind or visually impaired people. Make your voice heard. Register to vote and exercise your right and responsibility to vote.