Unless you live in Boston, it is a dull election season for many of us in Massachusetts. In my town we don’t have an election scheduled because there isn’t anything on the ballot. As a democracy geek, I feel most patriotic when I vote. I like the whole experience – connecting with my community, shaping my government, and the obligatory bake sale in the hallway.
In case you had any doubts, there is absolutely no excuse for a polling place to not be accessible on Election Day! The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) falls short of requiring the PTA to offer gluten-free options at an election day bake sale, but it sets the legal standard for individuals with disabilities to have “the same opportunity for access and participation as for other voters.”
In Massachusetts, voters with disabilities are protected by the Massachusetts Voters’ Bill of Rights that states that a polling place, and a voting booth at each polling place, must be accessible. While the goal of these laws is to provide the same voting experience for all citizens, an individual with a physical disability that prevents him or her from voting at a polling place on Election Day may request an absentee ballot in Massachusetts.
Yet concerns about voting access were raised this past June at a conference of Massachusetts Disability Commissioners. Despite legal protections, individuals with disabilities still experience difficulty voting. The National Council on Disability’s “Experien Experience of Voters with Disabilities in the 2012 Election Cycle”report documents an unacceptable number of polling places that are not accessible, poorly trained election workers, and malfunctioning accessible voting machines.
While I don’t have a physical disability that limits my ability to cast my ballot, during the last election I entertained the idea of asking to vote using the AutoMARK Voter Assist Terminal to experience accessible voting. I am curious what it is like to use the AutoMARK, and how election workers might handle my request. Each polling location in Massachusetts has an AutoMark Terminal, and election workers are expected to be trained in working with individuals with disabilities, and how to operate the AutoMARK.
I didn’t ask to use the AutoMARK, but after voting I did spend time talking with a poll worker about the experience of individuals with disabilities at my polling location. The election official said that during every election the workers run a test procedure using AutoMARK before the polls open to make sure the machine is working. The worker said several years ago one voter with a visual impairment used the machine, but the voter didn’t like his experience and he has voted without it in subsequent elections. Apparently where I vote the AutoMARK is barely used.
“It’s as easy as 1-2-3” claims the manufacturer of the AutoMARK in a promotional video. It didn’t seem quite that easy, but using the AutoMARK didn’t seem any more difficult than using an ATM machine. The system primarily benefits visually impaired users, although the screen reading functionality can apparently assist someone with dyslexia. The AutoMARK is supposed to be equipped with a privacy screen, but I did not see the screen at my polling location.
While it may help some people, the AutoMARK is not a one-size-fits all equality machine that removes barriers to voting for all individuals with disabilities. I fear that all the focus on the AutoMARK will give election officials the false impression that on machine can address the varied voting needs of individuals with disabilities. As suggested in the National Council on Disability’s report, additional funding is required to ensure access to the election process in America.