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California made it easier to vote, but some with disabilities still face barriers

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Lisamaria Martinez isn’t sure when she last voted in person. But she remembers the boots she wore that day — her “fabulous,” new navy blue boots with chunky heels, which gave her blisters on her mile-long walk back home from the polling place.

It was part of her “confidence attire” to feel empowered because on most election days, Martinez — a blind voter in Alameda County — said she had to show poll workers how to help her use the voting machine. She needed them to take her seriously.

“I shouldn’t have to tell people how to do their jobs, right?” Martinez said in an interview. “That emotional labor shouldn’t always be on the person with the disability.”

Martinez lost her sight when she was 5 due to severe allergic reactions, but has regained some after surgeries. She needs her ballot read out loud to vote in person. In November 2012, however, the audio feature on the voting machine broke down, forcing her and others to read out their votes to others. She and others sued the county in 2013.

Martinez’s other option is to fill out her ballot electronically. Visually impaired voters must still print out the ballot, make sure it’s correct, sign the envelope and return it, requiring help from a sighted person.

Others with print disabilities, including those who struggle to use printed materials due to conditions such as learning disabilities or dexterity issues, experience similar challenges.

California has been hailed by state officials and some voting rights advocates as a national leader in voting access. But advocates and blind voters including Martinez say Californians with disabilities still face unnecessary barriers to voting and lack options that work in other states. In 2022, the state ranked 17th in disability access, according to an election performance index by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

To comply with federal law, the Secretary of State’s office doesn’t collect data on the number of registered voters with disabilities. Census data shows about 4.2 million Californians of voting age live with a disability. More than 892,000 Californians have a visual disability, and about 93% of them are 18 or older.

Prompted by new laws and court fights, California election officials have in recent years established stricter requirements to test how accessible voting machines are and have adopted systems for voters with disabilities to fill out their ballots electronically. But efforts to allow people to also return ballots electronically have stalled.

Now, disability advocates are going to court: They are asking a federal judge to compel Secretary of State Shirley Weber’s office to allow voters who have difficulty using printed materials to return their ballots via fax in the November election — an option already available to military and overseas voters.

“The current paper-based ballot return requirements … impose significant, unlawful barriers for voters with print disabilities,” the plaintiffs argue in the case, scheduled to be heard June 24 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

A dozen states allow voters to return ballots electronically — by email, by fax or through an online portal — to at least some voters with disabilities, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

A 2022 bill sought to do the same in California. But Weber opposed it, arguing that online voting would be vulnerable to cyber attacks. Some security experts and other election officials across the nation also raised similar concerns.

The secretary of state “of course supports the expansion of the franchise so that more voters can vote with more convenience,” Weber said in her opposition letter. “However, it is also our responsibility to weigh the expansion of the franchise with the security and safety of our existing election methods.”

Weber’s office declined to answer CalMatters’ questions for this story last week, citing the agency’s policy not to speak about pending litigation.

California’s constitution guarantees every voter the right to a secret ballot, and its voter bill of rights guarantees any assistance they need.

Since the 1920s,the state has expanded voting rights. California legalized absentee voting for military and overseas voters in 1922 and for voters with physical disabilities in 1930. It expanded it to all registered voters in 1978, and during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, became the eighth state to mail every registered voter a ballot.

Voters with print disabilities have also had their voting access improve through a mix of federal and state policies, but that access is still limited, and progress was gained often through court fights, according to blind voters and advocates.

In the 2013 lawsuit against Alameda County, Martinez and others argued faulty machines disenfranchised voters and denied their right to “vote with full privacy and independence.”

A Superior Court judge ruled in their favor in October 2013, and the county promised in May 2015 to test the accessibility of voting machines before every election, better train poll workers on those machines and establish a hotline for any equipment malfunctions, according to Disability Rights Advocates.

In 2015, blind voters and advocates also sued San Mateo County after the county mailed ballots to all registered voters in 2014 to encourage more participation and reduce election costs. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office said all-mail balloting in another county did not significantly boost voter turnout, and that some voters with disabilities might prefer in-person voting. And since there was no system to fill out ballots electronically at the time, disability activists argued it excluded some voters who were unable to use printed ballots on their own.

“As a result, blind and visually impaired voters must rely on the assistance of others to read and mark their absentee ballots, thereby sacrificing the confidentiality of their vote, or forgo their right to vote by absentee ballot altogether,” the San Mateo lawsuit contended. The court eventually sided with the plaintiffs, ordering the county to better accommodate voters with disabilities.

The state Legislature passed a law in 2016 to develop a system allowing eligible voters to fill out ballots electronically, and another in 2018 to require all counties to offer that system to voters with disabilities and military and overseas voters.

A 2020 state law required all counties to offer the system to any registered voter who requested it in the 2020 general election, and in 2021, another law made that permanent.

In a video demonstration by Disability Rights California, voters can hear the ballot text, check boxes accordingly and listen to their choices before voting. Voters can also choose bigger fonts or use magnifying lenses to vote. Voter guides are also available in audio and large font forms. Mail-in ballot envelopes have punch holes, in part to help visually impaired voters find where to sign.

And California last year passed a law that allows curbside voting for those with disabilities, regardless of whether the polling place is accessible or not.

Voters with disabilities who want to mail in their ballot even after filling it out electronically need to find a printer. And without help from sighted people, it is hard for visually impaired voters to ensure their ballot was correctly printed and the envelope was correctly signed, said Jeff Thom, former president of the California Council of the Blind.

“Your printer may often be out of ink without you knowing it,” said Thom, who is blind.

Voters often seek help from family members and friends, but sometimes have to pay others to help.

To vote in the November 2022 election, Christopher Gray, who is blind, hired a reader to help him mark and return his ballot, and had to take time off work to match his reader’s schedule, according to the federal lawsuit against the secretary of state to be heard later this month.

Gray said he chose to use a paper ballot instead of an electronic one because he needed help returning his ballot. “Though I trusted my reader, I could not independently confirm they accurately marked my ballot and mailed it on my behalf,” he said.

In the March primary, Gray voted in person because his paid assistant was sick for nearly a month, he said.

The dependence on others may make some voters feel beholden to their assistants, said Fred Nisen, a disability attorney who has cerebral palsy. Nisen is co-chairperson of the Voting Accessibility Advisory Committee, which makes recommendations to the secretary of state’s office and whose scope was expanded in 2016 to voters with any disability, not just the visually impaired.

If someone’s political beliefs don’t align with their caregiver’s, for example, the caregiver might threaten to quit, Nisen said. “If you are divulging who you want to vote for, it can create conflict,” Nisen told CalMatters.

For visually impaired voters who want to cast their ballot in person, the consolidation of voting locations in some counties forced some to travel farther.

“You couldn’t just walk through your neighborhood polling place anymore. You had to likely get in a car or take an Uber or transit to these vote centers, which is just way more inconvenient,” said Tim Elder, a blind voter in Alameda County and a disability attorney.

In 2023, the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation into accessibility at Los Angeles County’s voting locations during the 2020 and 2022 elections, focused on issues such as ramps and signage for voters with disabilities, including those with vision impairments.

The audio on some voting machines can be muffled, and increasing the volume sometimes makes it even harder to hear, Thom said.

In Alameda County, in-person voting was difficult even after Martinez’s lawsuit, according to some blind voters. During the June 2016 election, Elder waited as poll workers struggled to turn on the audio feature of voting machines.

“I watched just voter after voter finish their ballot and move on,” until it was almost closing time, he said. He had brought his children to teach them about civic duty, but his wife, who had finished voting, had to take them home while he waited, he said.

“It’s always an issue,” agreed Martinez. “It’s never under an hour.”

Poll workers receive some training on assisting voters with disabilities, but it’s not in-depth, said Valerie Morishige, a voting rights advocate in Los Angeles County. Workers are trained how to be respectful to all voters, and how to increase font size or turn on audio options.

And while she said accessibility has improved over the last three elections, Morishige recalls issues such as power outages that prevented the use of audio, or audio not being loaded onto voting machines. In one case, Morishige said she helped a voter by reading the entire ballot to her.

“Our system has a long way to go,” she said. “Our entire culture, honestly, has a long way to go to make this accessible for folks.”

Some California advocates and lawmakers have tried to improve access for voters with disabilities. In 2022, Sen. Steve Glazer, an Orinda Democrat who led the Senate Elections Committee at the time, introduced the bill to allow them to return their ballots electronically. It died in the Assembly after the secretary of state’s office opposed it due to security concerns.

Glazer contended the security issues can be easily resolved, arguing people conduct financial transactions online already.

“I was disappointed that the secretary opposed my bill, which, all it did was give her the power to ask fora full assessment of the technology and security matters,” Glazer told CalMatters. “I think we all benefit by having broad accessibility to the ballot box, and that shouldn’t be limited by a disability.”

But California would not be a trailblazer in allowing voters with disabilities to vote electronically.

Colorado, for example, passed such a law in 2021. Eligible voters must verify their identity by entering their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number before marking and downloading their filled-out ballot. To return it, they must upload the electronic ballot, a signed ballot application and a picture of their ID to a secure state-run website.

Similarly, Hawaii allows for electronic return through an online portal, email or fax. Voters can email their ballot to the county elections office along with a signed affidavit or an electronic signature via a secure link, according to the state.

Some counties have tested voting with a smartphone app. But that method has sparked some security concerns, with experts saying the app could be hacked.

Electronic ballot return, in general, is deemed “high risk” by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, which recommended paper ballots. The institute said electronic ballots should be “ limited to voters who have no other means to return their ballot and have it counted.”

Ryan Ronco, president of the California Association of Clerks and Elections Officials and the registrar of voters for Placer County, said he is concerned about that risk: “Until we can have a provable system that allows for that electronic process, I’d be wary of just allowing it before we know all the safeguards.”

But, he said, electronic ballot return is not a “never:” “Technology is scary and amazing.”

Nisen acknowledged the security risks with online voting, which he said is why he would never advocate offering the option to all voters.

“Everybody in California has the right to vote independently and privately. But for voters with print disabilities, it’s only independent … if they vote in person,” he said. “We need to balance security with accessibility.”

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This story was originally published by CalMatters and distributed through a partnership with The Associated Press.

BY YUE STELLA YU AND SAMEEA KAMAL/CalMatters
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