Two years ago, during the midterm elections, Lucy Greco went online to learn more about what would be on her ballot. Greco, a web accessibility evangelist at the University of California, Berkeley, who is blind, was unable to use many of the sites because they contained links with bad or no text, making them inaccessible.
After some time, she was eventually able to find a web page listing the policies candidates were for and against. But all the roadblocks along the way were frustrating.
“It’s not like I can go to the same places everybody else can,” Greco said. “I have to hunt for the one that does it accessibly.”
Greco is just one of many people in the disability community — which makes up 26% of the US adult population — who’s faced tech-related obstacles when it comes to voting and the political process at large. Many run into problems when voter registration web pages and campaign sites aren’t accessible. If they vote in person, they can’t be sure there will be functioning machines at the polling station, or that they won’t have to wait in ridiculously long lines to cast a ballot. Other issues include steep ramps outside of buildings, and poor parking.
A report on polling place accessibility in the 2012 elections found that 30 percent of people with disabilities had trouble voting at their polling places, compared with 8 percent of individuals without disabilities. Some of the most common reasons were not being able to read or see ballot content and trouble understanding or using voting equipment.
Several organizations have been working to improve tech accessibility in political processes, to promote stronger voter turnout as well as to support people with disabilities who want to run for office. The Twitter hashtag #CripTheVote is part of a nonpartisan campaign designed to encourage discussions about disability issues in the US, with thousands of tweets ranging from people’s experiences at the polls to advocacy for more inclusive health care. People with disabilities can also download a ballot in certain states, then read it and mark it using their assistive technology device before mailing it or dropping it off. Additionally, there are a handful of tools designed to ensure online voting resources are accessible for everyone.
Removing these widespread roadblocks can help more people with disabilities cast a vote, which could have a significant impact on elections turnout. According to a Rutgers report on the 2016 elections, “If people with disabilities voted at the same rate as people without disabilities who have the same demographic characteristics, there would be about 2.2 million more voters.” Rebecca Cokley, director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress, says having more votes come from the disability community would lead elected officials to take accessibility issues more seriously.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois and the first female double amputee in the Senate, said tech has allowed voters and candidates with disabilities to participate more fully in elections, especially since the passage of the ADA in 1990, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
“Simply traveling to meet a candidate, participate in a rally or reach a polling location can be an obstacle for many,” Duckworth said. “For those who don’t own a vehicle and live in an area served by mass transit, many transit systems are not fully accessible and ride share opportunities are oftentimes few and far between. These obstacles can partially be overcome with virtual participation, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Ongoing web accessibility challenges
One of the biggest hurdles people with disabilities continue to face is a lack of accessible websites. This can be particularly challenging in an age when so much of our lives takes place online, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic.
An audit released last month by digital accessibility company Ablr found that the campaign sites for President Donald Trump, former Vice President Joe Biden, Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris had a total of 44 violations, “concluding each landing page does not comply with the standards set by the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines.” These violations could prevent 61 million voters with a disability from accessing critical information, the company said in a report. Further, a Vox report last year found that not a single 2020 presidential candidate had an accessible campaign site.
“We are continually striving to improve the accessibility and usability of our site, and are committed to providing a web experience that meets the needs of as many visitors as possible,” Biden campaign spokesperson Rosemary Boeglin said. “We will continue to work with experts like Perkins Access to ensure inclusivity and enhance accessibility.”
The Trump campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“Accessibility is something that’s overlooked, even at the highest level, and that’s something we need to really address,” said Ablr CEO John Samuel. “The lack of understanding and awareness extends from not having people with disabilities in leadership roles and helping make those policies.”
A 2015 study by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Accessible Technology found that just one online voter registration site in the US — California’s — was fully accessible to people with disabilities. Further, most states’ sites didn’t meet even minimal accessibility standards.
Though electronic and information technology from federal departments or agencies is required to be accessible by law, compliance is very poor, said Sarah Blahovec, civic engagement and voting rights organizer at the National Council on Independent Living. That’s largely because compliance is essentially enforced by consumer complaints, she said, and because of a lack of accountability processes at higher levels.
“The burden shouldn’t have to be on people with disabilities [to report issues],” Blahovec said. “It really shouldn’t have to be on us to get people to follow the law.”
It isn’t just with election-related sites. A report by web accessibility company accessiBe found that 98% of US websites it analyzed aren’t fully accessible. Additionally, Americans with disabilities are nearly three times as likely to never go online, according to the Pew Research Center, and are around 20% less likely to subscribe to home broadband and own a computer, smartphone or tablet.
Though some politicians argue a law should be passed requiring online accessibility, former Rep. Tony Coelho of California, who authored the Americans with Disabilities Act, says such a law could backfire. Creating legislation that says the internet is under the ADA implies that’s not already the case, which the courts have ruled it is.
“Going after legislation is a negative,” Coelho said. “Enforcement is what we need.”
Tech to improve access
People with disabilities who want to run for office also face a slew of added challenges. For instance, they may have a hard time going from door to door to speak with voters. Thankfully, the COVID-19 pandemic has spawned virtual canvassing tools like I C Voters, which allows canvassers to connect with voters online. Blahovec notes these technologies will continue to be useful for people with disabilities even after the pandemic is over.
I C Voters helps officials with disabilities more easily engage with their constituency, says Neal Carter, founder of political consulting firm Nu View Consulting. It brings them one step closer to having equal opportunities and access leading up to an election.
“We already realize that the world is not adapted for our disabled bodies. Then if we’re running for office, that’s even more exemplified,” Carter said. “Every technological thing that you could think of that is a stopgap for a disabled person regularly is even more amplified if they’re running for office.”
Thankfully, more tech-based solutions are slowly rolling out. The Brink Election Guide is a mobile app built with accessible technology that allows voters to access information such as election deadlines and when, where and how to vote by mail or in person. It’s available for download on the App Store and Google Play.
Diane Golden, director of technical assistance at the Center for Assistive Technology Act Data Assistance, said a digital interface is what’s necessary to truly make voting more accessible. One of the biggest hurdles to making that happen is appeasing security experts, who warn systems like online voting aren’t as secure as voting with paper ballots. But Golden hopes there will be a fully digital process, such as a voting app, not too far down the road that’ll satisfy everyone’s needs.
These kinds of digital tools can be helpful for voters like Samuel, the Ablr CEO, who’s blind. He doesn’t read braille, and during the 2018 elections, a poll worker had to go into the polling booth with him and fill out his ballot. Not having the independence to do so himself and trusting a stranger to cast his vote was unsettling, he said. That’s why it’s critical to come up with a universal design that’ll allow everyone to easily participate in political processes, Samuel noted.
“It really comes down to actually including people in the design, whether that be in technology or in our policies,” Samuel said. “We need people with disabilities at the table.”
For people in all parts of the political process, that increase in awareness, inclusion and understanding will be what helps make future elections more accessible for everyone.
“We’ve fought these battles in every single industry that there is and every single aspect of life there is,” Greco said. “You get really tired of having to fight the battles.”