One definition of democracy is the ability of voters to cast a ballot in secret. But every Election Day, one specific group of voters is deprived of this right -- voters with disabilities.
Here in New York City, where there are estimated to be over a million residents living with disabilities, an unknown number are eligible voters who require assistance to cast a ballot on Election Day. Those who choose to vote are forced to divulge their selection: Blind people must tell somebody their choice since the current voting machines do not include Braille, as must physically restricted people since there are no "sip and puff" provisions or other modern assistive technology.
Disabled voters who do not wish to disclose their vote or have difficulties traveling to their local poll site are able to request an absentee ballot from the Board of Elections. This allows voters to vote through a mail-in ballot prior to Election Day. There are currently 22,217 permanent absentee ballot voters in the city; experts speculate that many of these voters are disabled.
But soon things are supposed to improve for the disabled voter, thanks to what is officially known as "Plan B" -- ironically, a reflection of New York's failure to do what it was supposed to do.
How The “Help America Vote Act” Can Help
In addition to standardizing and modernizing the face of elections nationwide, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was also intended to provide individuals with disabilities access to the polls to cast an independent and private vote on Election Day. But here in New York, the implementation of HAVA is in limbo, with a federal lawsuit looming over the State Board of Elections due to its non-compliance and delay.
The judge mandated the state board to provide a plan for implementation of new voting systems and a statewide voter registration database.
The interim solution proposed by the State Board of Elections, also known as â€Plan B’ calls for the purchase and limited deployment of special machines to aid disabled voters under HAVA. These devices will assist voters in completing paper ballots in various ways. For example, a visually impaired voter would go into a booth,put on a headphone, and have a recorded voice read the names on the ballot. The voter might have a joystick, and the voice would say, for example, "Push the joystick to the left for Eliot Spitzer, to the right for John Faso." The machine will then print out a paper ballot with the voter's choices.
Throughout New York, most counties have stated their ability to accommodate only one or two of such assistive devices to be placed in a central location for disabled voters on Election Day. The New York City board plans to purchase ballot marking devices for 2006 to be placed in the five borough offices.
On June 2nd, the court signed off on the state’s proposed plan, but also required the state to develop a comprehensive strategy by mid August to replace all lever machines in 2007.
Access at a Price
Although voters with disabilities will have the new option of voting at the borough office on a ballot-marking device in 2006, the jury is still out as to whether this plan will actually enfranchise voters to vote in an independent and private manner. The rush to implement a separate voting process for disabled voters, coupled with the novelty of ballot markers, is a recipe for problems on Election Day. Also, since ballot markers will be placed centrally, disabled voters must travel to cast an unassisted ballot beyond their local polling site. Additionally, since disabled voters are the only voters to vote on the new machines, it can be easily determined how they voted as a group, therefore compromising the confidentiality of their vote.
In response to such concerns, State Senator John Flanagan from Long Island called for the legislature to provide $10 million more in state funds for the purchase of additional voting machines for the disabled in 2006.
But election officials are hesitant to purchase additional machines under the interim solution since counties will choose new voting systems in 2007 that may not be compatible to the ballot markers for 2006.
Groups such as Citizens Union Foundation (for whom I work) have submitted legal briefs that oppose the proposed plan, arguing that such a partial solution is ineffective and that it would make more sense to wait for a more comprehensive implementation of HAVA in 2007. The City Council has introduced a resolution that also advocates for such course of action. Although the court has signed off on “Plan B”, the judge has set July 6th to hear Citizen Union Foundation’s amicus motion and also to entertain the intervention motion made by the New York Public Interest Research Group and other groups in the HAVA suit.
Regardless of the court decision, it is up to the State Board of Elections and county boards in the state to ensure that voters with disabilities have access to a private and independent vote.
“New Yorkers with disabilities have been waiting for over 200 years to have full access to voting machines, polling places and the ballot,” said Brad Williams of the New York State Independent Living Council, a statewide non-profit disability organization. “It is time that New York State be compelled to honor their moral and legal responsibilitiesâ€¦”
Amy Ngai is program associate for Citizens Union Foundation, which publishes Gotham Gazette.Â