Due to growing concerns about election tampering after the 2016 election, many within the intelligence community are pushing state legislatures to move toward paper-based voting systems they believe can be more easily audited. However, paper ballots are not accessible to many voters with disabilities.

The Issue

The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) requires that “a voting system shall be accessible to people with disabilities, including non-visual accessibility for blind and low vision voters, in a manner that provides the same opportunity for access and participation (including privacy and independence) as for other voters.” After the passage of HAVA, electronic voting machines became more prevalent. They allowed voters who formerly needed assistance to complete a paper ballot to vote privately and independently, some for the first time ever. These machines have raised concerns about election tampering and providing a verifiable paper trail. In response, many state governments began eliminating electronic voting machines and moving back to paper ballots. Paper ballots create barriers for voters who are unable to read standard text, physically write, and/or fill-in the ballot choices. Paper vote-by-mail ballots create additional barriers to voting for those who cannot seal and certify the ballot via a signature on the envelope and mail the ballot back to the appropriate voting official to be counted.

Why it Matters

Paper ballots are not accessible to many voters with disabilities, such as those with limited dexterity or visual impairments. Voters with disabilities may not have someone they trust to help them complete a ballot and may feel uncomfortable providing poll workers with their ballot selection. Requiring voters to accept assistance completing a ballot is also a violation of their right to vote privately and independently as established by HAVA.

Ballot marking devices have created a way to address election security concerns while still providing an accessible method of voting for voters with disabilities. Ballot marking devices allow voters with disabilities to fill in their ballots privately and independently using the accessibility features they need while still allowing for paper audits. The ballots printed out from a ballot marking device contain a barcode, however, distinguishing them from hand-marked ballots. If voters with disabilities are the only voters using ballot marking devices, some advocates worry their votes could be singled out.

According to HAVA, all voting systems must be made accessible to voters with disabilities and allow them to vote privately and independently. This poses a challenge to many state’s vote-by-mail, or absentee voting, programs. The Federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act allows military personnel and U.S. citizens living outside of the country to cast their ballots via electronic formats, email, and fax. Many disability rights advocates believe that these same voting methods should be extended to voters with disabilities in order to make absentee voting accessible.

Take Action for Change

For voters with disabilities, HAVA isn’t just an election reform law; it is a civil rights law. It provides them with the right to participate equally in elections and to cast a private, verifiable, independent ballot. In order to protect these rights, the Department of Justice, with the Elections Assistance Commission, should:

  • Update and reissue guidance to states regarding their legal obligation to provide accessible voting systems for voters with disabilities.
  • State legislatures should pass legislation to allow all voters to use the same voting system thus eliminating dual voting systems.
  • Congress should extend allowable voting formats under the Federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act to voters with disabilities to help eliminate barriers posed by vote-by-mail programs.