Blind and visually impaired voters are welcoming Massachusetts’ new statewide online voting option

To vote in this year’s election, Watertown resident Kim Charlson doesn’t have to go to her polling station, print a ballot, or sign any forms. Charlson, who is blind, plans to use a new voting system for people with disabilities that will allow them to vote electronically through a secure web portal.

The option was available in five cities last year: Boston, Cambridge, Quincy, Watertown and Worcester. It’s now permanently available statewide, thanks to a lesser-known provision in the VOTES Act, passed in June, which aimed to simplify voting in the state overall by permanently offering all Massachusetts voters mail-in voting and expanding early voting. Proponents say it puts Massachusetts at the forefront of accessible voting in many ways, being one of only a handful of states now allowing the electronic option for disabled voters. Once they apply, voters using the new method will be able to cast their vote electronically early or before polling stations close at 8 p.m. on November 8 Election Day.

“I’m just blown away by the ease of voting and the privacy of being able to do it independently and turn in my ballot knowing I’m ready,” said Charlson, executive director of the Perkins Library at the Perkins School for the Blind, who used the new system for the first time last year. “It gives me a good feeling for the democratic process.”

Charlson recalls that when she first voted at 18, it was best for her to have a friend or poll worker accompany her to the polling booth to help fill out a ballot. She and other advocates say that more choice — from secure web voting to mail-in ballots to accessible machines at polling stations — is a big step forward for people with disabilities.

“I think the disability community is embracing it [voting] very seriously because we had to run the fights somehow to have the ability to vote privately and independently,” Charlson said.

In 2020, the Disability Law Center partnered with the Bay State Council of the Blind and the Boston Center for Independent Living to sue the state for a lack of provisions in place for disabled people to vote safely and securely during the pandemic to be able to Secretary of State Bill Galvin settled the lawsuit shortly before the election to allow disabled voters to vote electronically.

But during the 2020 election, voters with disabilities who chose the electronic method still needed a printer and had to physically sign the ballot. Proponents pushed for the option to last beyond that year and worked with the Secretary of State’s office to make it even more accessible.

“We wanted to move away from mailing it in because once you’ve printed something on paper, it’s inaccessible to the blind,” said David Kingsbury, president of the Bay State Council of the Blind. “Someone has to fill it in. Someone has to print it out, someone has to mail it and so on.”

A sample ballot showed during a [date?] Demonstration for the new electoral process

Screenshot of GBH News

To use the new system, voters fill out an application on the Secretary of State’s website, verify their voter registration status and certify that they have a disability. The application, due by 5 p.m. Nov. 1, then goes to the city’s election official, who sends two separate emails back to the voter — one with a PIN and one with the ballot, accessed via a secure web portal can be. The voter uses their own screen-reading technology to fill out the accessible ballot at home. The platform has been tested on more than 90 combinations of screen readers and web browsers.

Kingsbury, who is blind, was impressed by how smoothly things ran in the five parishes during the off-year election last year. He plans to vote electronically at Stoughton this November.

“The overall experience was extremely positive,” said Kingsbury. “I think for something that was set up the first time, it worked incredibly smoothly.”

Janet Murphy, Watertown’s town clerk, helped implement the new system last year. Six people are using the system in 2021 and she told GBH News that so far eight applications have been received for 2022. Murphy said the city spent less than $2,000 to get it working with the help of Democracy Live, a voting technology company. Both Murphy and Charlson say they are actively working to spread the word about the new option.

“It made perfect sense to me, especially given that the Perkins School for the Blind is here in Watertown,” she said.

Offering the electronic option “couldn’t be simpler” for city poll workers, she said. “It’s not complicated…it’s very simple.”

Massachusetts is the fourth state in the nation, after West Virginia, Colorado and North Carolina, to introduce such a program for voters with disabilities. It’s the same technology some states are using to allow foreign military personnel to vote.

“This is not just a blue state thing,” Kingsbury said.

“I think the disability community is embracing it [voting] very seriously because we had to fight the battles to get the opportunity to vote privately and independently.”

-Kim Charlson, executive director of the Perkins Library

In addition to the electronic option, disabled voters can also use the options available to every voter in the country: they can vote early, vote by mail or vote at their polling station on election day. Each location must have an AutoMark device to enable accessible voting, and each polling station itself must be accessible to people with physical disabilities through ramps and accessible parking.

Rachel Tanenhaus, executive director of the Cambridge Commission for Persons with Disabilities, is happy to have options. In 2020, she used the electronic voting system because she didn’t want to risk exposure to COVID-19. This year she wants to vote at her polling station in Malden.

“Not everyone votes online. And I like voting in person,” she said, noting that not all people with disabilities are familiar with assistive technologies. “If there aren’t 10 million accessibility barriers, that’s actually pretty cool. … The important point is that you have that choice.”

Tanenhaus, who is visually impaired, can use an AutoMark machine to enlarge ballot text, increase contrast, and use tactile raised buttons or braille to privately fill in her ballot.

Occasionally she had problems with such devices: it wasn’t plugged in, the poll worker didn’t know how to use it, or the device was facing out so everyone could see her ballot. There are also challenges with the accessibility of transport to get to the polling stations, such as: B. navigating public transport and weather such as rain, ice and snow that make it difficult for people with mobility aids or the blind to get around.

Despite occasional obstacles, she likes to vote in person and says technology has improved access.

“The experience is so much better,” she said. “I no longer have to have panic attacks when I vote because it’s just really important to me – just like it’s really important to you and many others to be able to vote.”

For Kingsbury, the success of the new secure e-voting system points to a future where voting access is expanded for everyone – not just those with disabilities.

“This really goes beyond disability,” he said. “I mean, we live in the 21st century. We do pretty much everything else over the internet. … And I just think in the future this is really something that I hope should be adopted by a lot of states for all types of voters.”

The application period for barrier-free postal voting ends on Tuesday, November 1 at 5 p.m

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.