The COVID-19 pandemic has sewn chaos and confusion into the fabric of almost every aspect of our lives. In short order, policymakers and advocates alike have had to adjust to this shifting landscape. Among the topics that have dominated state and national policy discussions since March is the expected impact that the pandemic will have upon this year’s elections. Even as the calendar turns to October, there is still so much that is unknown about how November’s General Election will play out. Understandably, a focal point of these debates during this period of uncertainty has been the availability and capacity for mail balloting as an avenue to promoting voter safety. A much less-frequently discussed topic, however, is the accessibility of mail balloting for voters with visual impairments and other print disabilities.

In Florida, mail balloting has been a centerpiece of our state’s election administration for nearly two decades. Voters may request a “vote by mail” (VBM) ballot and do not have to explain their justification or need for this request. Although state election law includes a provision requiring the state to work with the disability community to achieve fully accessible VBM balloting, voting rights advocates from across the state’s disability communities have been waging an uphill battle to fulfill the Legislature’s intent.

This summer, however, that all began to finally change when the Florida Council of the Blind (FCB) and its members signed a Settlement Agreement with the 67 supervisors of elections and the Florida Secretary of State to implement a Remote Accessible Vote By Mail (RAVBM) system in the state. For November’s election, RAVBM will be a feature of November’s elections in five pilot counties (Miami-Dade, Orange, Pinellas, Volusia and Nassau). In advance of the state’s 2022 elections, RAVBM will arrive in all counties everywhere in the state.

Access the Vote Florida (ATVFL) coalition partner Jason Hahr talked recently with several FCB members who were involved in aspects of this litigation and its settlement – current FCB President Sheila Young, past FCB President Jim Kracht, and FCB member Doug Hall. Portions of their conversation together follow.

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ATVFL: Can you give us a little bit of insight and background into how this lawsuit came about?

Jim: I had been working with the state for more than two years and time was running short. It became critical that we get an accessible software program for VBM approved if it was going to be implemented in time for 2020. When time had gotten to the point where it could wait no further, I concluded that we needed to make a move to try to force: one, certification of the pending application for certification that the state had; and two, use of CARES money that was provided by the federal government to the Supervisors of Election to implement the program in all 67 counties. When we filed the lawsuit it was our intention to try to get a directive that this money be used partly for that purpose […], and it was also our thought that the existence of COVID-19 would work more to our advantage than to our disadvantage because it was so critical to have an option to accessible voting machines at the polling places for blind and disabled voters.

Doug: The question comes up, “why did FCB end up suing?” The reason we ended up suing is because, as far as we saw there was very little action coming out of Tallahassee regarding certification of an appropriate system. We basically felt that we needed to file suit to force the state to do what we wanted them to do because, as Jim said, he’s been working on this for two years and getting nowhere.

ATVFL: What are the benefits of VBM for people with disabilities that have visual impairments or any other type of disability?

Doug: Personally, I like to go to the poll and use the machine. We’ve worked for years to get accessible machines to vote with, and the [Help America Vote Act (HAVA)] requires that they be in every precinct and I like using it. But the problem with COVID-19 is that it just isn’t safe – health-wise or safety-wise – to go to the polls, at least that’s my feeling. Since we’re staying home because of the crisis so we don’t get sick or have a problem, we felt it’s very important to be able to vote by mail so we’re able to stay home and still cast our votes. To me, that’s the main reason for VBM. I still prefer to go to the polls and vote, but it’s just not safe for me as far as I’m concerned.

Jim: I think there are a number of people in the communities that simply won’t go to the polling places […] and the availability of a VBM option certainly will hopefully increase voter participation.

Doug: In many areas, transportation is a problem. A huge problem. VBM enables a person with a disability that is transportation disadvantaged to be able to vote and not have to deal with the transportation problems of getting to the poll.

Sheila: There’s another point to this – it’s the right of everyone to be able to vote in any way, shape or form that they choose. You should be able to vote by mail if you want to do that, and it shouldn’t matter whether the polls are safe or not safe, or whether they’re transportation disadvantaged. The fact is that we’re all entitled to the right to vote.

ATVFL: I like the way you put that. Can you break down what Democracy Live’s software does? (Democracy Live provides RAVBM platforming to states for election administration purposes).

Jim: Yes, Democracy Live’s software allows a voter to receive their ballot via a website with a link in a format that can be read, interpreted, understood and voted with their accessibility software – be it, a screen reader such as JAWS, or NVDA or a magnification program or a braille display. These voters then print their ballot and submit it back to the Supervisor of Election either by getting it printed and bringing it to one of the Supervisor’s drop-boxes, or by using the U.S. Mail.

ATVFL: There’s no way to turn it in electronically?        

Doug: Some states are voting electronically, but in Florida it’s not legal. We can’t do that at the moment. It would be easier, I agree, but we can’t do it until they change the law.

Jim: And I think it’s critical to say that that’s why we can’t stop. We have an agreement in place that should be fully implemented by March 2022 – but we’re not done. We need to work on electronic return of ballots, and we need to work on options for non-computer users.

Doug: The nice thing that I see is that if and when the state does decide to allow for electronic voting, the system we are using here can be very easily changed to one that’s electronic. But, at least it gets the system started. Which, as Sheila said, it’s our right to vote independently and in secret – and that’s really the meat of the whole thing.

ATVFL: There are some states that already allow for full electronic balloting?

Jim: Yes […], there are a few states that do. The military model for this – which is what started this all initially – allows for electronic return. That’s computerized voting, and Florida insists in conversations that I have had that we’re a long way from getting that. I don’t think we’re there yet, but yes it’s ultimately need to obtain if it’s at all possible. It does bring up security concerns that are out there and that are real, and the proponents of ballot security protections are very vocal about objecting to electronic return.

ATVFL: When you say “we’re not done”, what else do you think needs to be done to achieve fair and equal voting for persons with disabilities that hasn’t yet been done?

Jim: I think we need to work on a method of ballot return that is electronic, so that you’re not tied to having to find a printer. Many blind people do not have printers, and this is going to pose a problem for them. Many blind people do not have computers, and we need to deal with how we can extend the right to cast a private, secret ballot for them other than at a polling place.

ATVFL: Could you explain aspects of how this Settlement Agreement with the state is intended to work, and address your understanding of the pilot project that will be in place prior to November’s elections?

Jim: Sure, the five counties that are participating in the pilot project are Volusia, Orange, Miami-Dade, Pinellas and Nassau Counties. They will have compliant VBM by November 2020. The state has agreed to conduct a workshop to come up with directives and procedures to implement the project [Editor’s note: this workshop was held on September 18th]. A mailing is going to be sent by the state’s Bureau of Braille and Talking Books Library to all of the blind and low-vision recipients of services through the Library in the five counties advising them that their county will have an accessible VBM project. I have just compiled in Miami-Dade County a list of 20+ contacts, and others are also reaching out to the Miami-Dade County Supervisor of Elections so they can start getting in touch with people on developing practices and procedures for reaching voters who can benefit from the system, and I know that other counties are doing similar things. There will be a task force created statewide after the 2020 elections to develop statewide practices and procedures to assist the 62 remaining counties and the 5 pilot counties in finalizing procedures for accessible VBM.

ATVFL: Would you mind sharing some perspective or sense of your own past experiences voting in the state? What has voting in-person been like in the past for you? Have you had an opportunity to vote by mail yet, and was it frustrating for you if it wasn’t accessible or as accessible as it could be? What are you own 2020 voting plans?

Jim: I had horrendously bad experiences in the 2000 election voting at my polling place with precinct-provided poll worker assistance. At that point I became energized and started fighting for accessible voting machines that would promote independent voting by those people who wanted to do it. We had HAVA’s influence in 2002, and by the time that we were able to convince all of the state’s counties to get accessible voting machine it was a tremendous success. However, as soon as we got it, the machines we were using were declared illegal for all voters other than disabled voters which was very frustrating. It took until 2019 for the state to finally get its ducks in a row and allow accessible optical-scan machines to be fully certified and usable by all voters not just blind and disabled voters. I would continue to use those voting machines, but it was important that those who were most concerned for health reasons and other reasons – as well as Sheila’s suggestion that all voters should have that right to be able to vote by mail with an accessible VBM ballot – hence, I will use the Democracy Live program this November to see how the system works and go through the process and I encourage everyone that can to do so.

Sheila: I love going to the poll. I love the poll workers seeing us at the poll using the machines that we did work so hard to get. I also plan to use accessible VBM for two reasons – one, because we fought very hard to get it and I feel like it’s my obligation to do so; and two, to see if it works well because how can I promote it if I don’t use it? A few years ago, Orange County did an e-vote trial just for the county and I participated in that and I loved it. Absolutely loved it. It was so easy to fill out the ballot, and so easy to put it in the envelope and send it. I’m hoping this is similar. I don’t know if it is, I don’t know if it’s not. I’m very excited to see how this goes because as I said, if I don’t use it then how can I encourage others to use it if I don’t know how it works.

Doug: I’ve been working with our Supervisor of Elections in Volusia County. We have a group of computer users and others that are very interested in participating and the Supervisor has explained that they’re in the process of getting a mock election set up to make sure that we know what we’re doing so that when it comes to voting in November people already know how to do it so there aren’t any problems. I think there’s a lot of excitement, and people I talk to think that it’s a wonderful idea. I was told that poll workers and staff are not allowed to ask what a person’s disability is, or even whether they have a disability [Editor’s note: this is a 100% correct statement of the law]. One of the questions I get asked many times is “so, how does someone register to get the accessible VBM ballot?” What I was told is that if somebody [requests an accessible ballot] then it will be provided. There is no question of “does the person has a print disability” or not. All you have to do is to ask, and say you want it.

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