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

To vote in this year’s election, Watertown resident Kim Charlson won’t need to go to her polling place, print a ballot or sign any forms. Charlson, who is blind, plans to take advantage of a new voting system for people with disabilities that allows 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 of the VOTES Act passed in June, which was intended to make voting easier statewide by permanently offering mail-in voting to everyone. Massachusetts voters and expanding early voting. Proponents say this in many ways puts Massachusetts at the forefront of accessible voting as one of the few states now allowing the electronic option for voters with disabilities. Once they apply, voters using the new method can vote electronically early or before polls close on Election Day at 8 p.m. on Nov. 8.

“I’m just thrilled with the ease of voting and the privacy of being able to do it independently and submit my ballot and know that I’m ready,” said Charlson, executive director of the Perkins Library at the Perkins School for the Blind. , which used the new system for the first time last year. “It makes me feel good about the democratic process.”

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

“I think the disability community takes it [voting] very seriously because we kind of had to fight for 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 lack of accommodations for people with disabilities to vote safely during the pandemic. Secretary of State Bill Galvin settled the lawsuit just before the election to allow voters with disabilities to vote electronically.

But in the 2020 election, voters with disabilities who chose the electronic method still needed a printer and had to physically sign the ballot. Supporters have been pushing for the option to last beyond this year alone and have worked with the Secretary of State’s office to make it even more accessible.

“We wanted to move away from mailing because once you’re dealing with a hard copy, it’s no longer accessible to the blind,” explained David Kingsbury, president of the Bay State Council of the Blind. “Someone is going to have to fill it out. Someone is going to have to print it, someone is going to have to mail it, etc.

An example of a ballot shown during a [date?] demonstration of the new voting system

Screenshot by GBH News

To use the new system, the voter completes a application on the website of the secretary of state, verifying their voter status and certifying that they have a disability. The request, due Nov. 1 at 5 p.m., is then forwarded to the city’s election official, who sends two separate emails back to the voter — one with a PIN and one with the accessible ballot. through a secure web portal. The voter uses their own screen-reading technology to independently complete the accessible ballot at home. The platform has been tested on over 90 combinations of screen readers and web browsers.

Kingsbury, who is blind, was impressed with how easily it went in the five boroughs in the off-year elections last year. He plans to vote electronically in Stoughton in November.

“The overall experience has been overwhelmingly positive,” Kingsbury said. “I think for something set up the first time, it worked incredibly well.”

Watertown City Clerk Janet Murphy helped implement the new system last year. Six people have used the system in 2021, and she told GBH News that so far eight apps have arrived for 2022. Murphy said the city spent less than $2,000 to set it up and do it operate with the help of Democracy Live, a voting technology company. Murphy and Charlson say they are actively working to publicize the new option.

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

Providing the electronic option “couldn’t be easier” for the city’s election workers, she said. “It’s not heavy…it’s very simple.”

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

“It’s not purely a blue state type of thing,” Kingsbury said.

“I think the disability community takes it [voting] very seriously because we kind of had to fight for the ability to vote privately and independently.

-Kim Charlson, Executive Director of the Perkins Library

In addition to the electronic option, voters with disabilities can also use options available to all voters in the state: they can vote in advance polls, vote by mail, or vote at their polling place on Election Day. Each location must have an AutoMark machine to enable accessible voting, and each voting location itself must be accessible to people with physical disabilities through ramps and accessible parking spaces.

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

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

Tanenhaus, who has low vision, can use an AutoMark machine to increase the size of ballot text, increase contrast and use raised or Braille touch buttons to fill out his ballot privately.

Sometimes she had problems with such machines: it wasn’t plugged in, the poll worker didn’t know how to use it, or the machine was facing out so everyone could see their ballot . There are also transport accessibility issues to get to polling places, such as navigating public transport and weather conditions like rain, ice and snow that make it more difficult for people with devices. of mobility or who are blind to move.

Even with occasional hurdles, she enjoys voting in person and says technology has improved access.

“The experience is so much better,” she said. “I don’t have to have panic attacks anymore when I go to vote, because it’s really important to me, just as it’s really important to you and many others to be able to vote.”

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

“It really goes beyond disability,” he said. “I mean, it’s the 21st century. We pretty much do everything else through the internet. … And I just think in the future, it’s really something that should hopefully be embraced, by many states for all varieties of voters.

The deadline to submit a mail-in ballot request is Tuesday, November 1 at 5:00 p.m.