Last week, my husband Jason and I went to our nearest early voting location. We arrived 20 minutes before the doors were scheduled to open, and found a line of people spanning the length of a full city block. Some folks had even set up chairs and must have been waiting a while. It was like nothing we had ever seen on an election day, much less two weeks prior.
The first time I ever voted, when I was 19, I used a brailled absentee ballot in Arizona. That was my favorite way to vote, but it hasn’t been available in any of the other states where I have lived. Subsequently, I have always gone to the polls to vote, usually early, and usually alone, to use the talking voting machine.
As I waited in line, I pondered how unusual this election season is, for so many reasons. But at the same time, I reflected on all the historic steps that have led up to my fulfilling my basic right to vote.
Just a hundred years ago, women in the United States were given the right to vote. Before that, my husband would have been expected to vote for both of us. And I would have been expected to …. Stay home and take care of a bunch of kids? Without reliable birth control, probably.
But then I remembered that I’m not just a woman, I am a blind woman, and during, say, the 1916 election, blind women didn’t have too many opportunities to integrate into society. I probably would have still gotten a basic education at the school for the blind, but after that? Would I have had opportunities to go to college, to marry, or to learn the skills needed to become a good housewife? It’s doubtful.
Several laws have been passed protecting the disabled citizen’s right to vote, beginning with Section 208 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which allows disabled voters to cast a ballot with human assistance. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA), passed just before I reached the age of majority, requires every polling location in the United States to have at least one electronic voting machine. Such machines have assistive technology enabling people who cannot read print, as well as people who cannot handwrite or use a punch card, to cast an independent, secret ballot.
As we reach the front of the voting line, a well-intended woman tells us that next time we can vote curbside. She points to a sign advertising curbside access for “handicapped and elderly” voters. It’s intended for people who can use paper ballots but who cannot stand in the long lines due to physical disability or health risks. I calmly inform the woman that curbside voting wouldn’t really work for people like me, who need to use the talking machines inside the voting booth. It’s a textbook example of disability spread, reminding me how much work still needs to be done.
We finally make it inside the government center. Jason completes the brief identification forms for both of us, so naturally, the poll workers think he will be helping me vote. I can feel the power in my voice as I tell them, projecting through my mask: “I’d like to use the talking voting machine, please.” I momentarily consider the number of letter-writing campaigns, call-ins and congressional meetings, drafts and amendments to legislation that happened before I reached voting age, enabling me to utter those words and have my request honored.
After a very brief discussion between poll workers, I am escorted to the machine and my ballot is loaded. I put on the headset and turn up the volume just in time to hear the name of my preferred presidential candidate being read. I press the button labeled with a braille S, for select, then arrow forward to the next contest. Within just a couple of minutes, I’m done with my electronic ballot. Jason and I insert our ballots into the box and head out, our civic duty completed.
A great deal of work has been done that enabled me to cast an independent, secret ballot last week. But much more work still needs to be done. There are disabled people who have been disenfranchised because they have been placed under guardianship. Others cannot vote because they lack government-issued identification cards. Absentee ballots are still inaccessible to people with print disabilities in many states, and many of these same individuals cannot access transportation to get to the polls. And, despite the HAVA, some polling locations are still inaccessible to wheelchair users. Removal of these barriers would greatly amplify the participation of disabled voters in our democratic process.
This election is indeed unlike any other. If you are able, please exercise your right to vote, and please join me in working toward a future where every one of our citizens can make their voices heard.