Curtis Chong has witnessed a lot of election cycles where voting officials with good intentions for expanding access to people living with disabilities end up replacing one kind of barrier with another.
Chong, a Coloradan who is blind and a professional and personal advocate for voters who have disabilities, was living in New Mexico in 2014 when he and his wife — who is also blind — were invited to test the state’s new voting equipment. Like the old system, the freshened New Mexico method offered a voice reader for the ballot; once the blind voter had made selections, a paper ballot was printed and placed in the usual ballot box.
Curtis Chong could plug his own headphones into the machine. Nice touch, he thought. But the old voice method the Chongs were used to was gone. The new software mushed the S’s and Z’s. If you sped up the reader to get through a thick set of referendums, syllables were clipped and unintelligible.
“What they did not do was talk to the blind community through the obvious groups or disability groups,” said Chong, who at the time worked for the state chapter of the National Federation of the Blind. “They picked it based on their examination as not-blind people.”
The happier ending for Chong is that he lives in Colorado for the 2020 election, and the activism from him and many allies throughout the state has produced a voting system he declares is excellent for those with disabilities, with legitimate chances of getting even better.
Coloradans with any access barriers can fill out their ballot through a secure online system, print it out, and mail or drop it back to their county, through a state law passed in 2019 with the advice and backing of major disability rights groups. Online security packages are nearly complete that would allow those voters — and the general public — to also return the ballot electronically with the press of a button at home, if legislatures around the nation move on it, Chong said.
“We have it pretty darned good here,” said Chong, who lives in the Heather Gardens complex for older residents in Aurora. “It’s absolutely amazing we could do it in the time frame we did.”
Concerns remain about blocked access, though, even with the good will earned by the cooperation of advocates and voting officials during the pandemic. Advocates say family and friends of prospective voters living in the more than 900 elder care centers and other care institutions in Colorado must remain extra vigilant that COVID-19-related health restrictions do not bar their loved ones from casting a ballot.
At some nursing institutions, “staff do not take election rights seriously with some of their residents,” said Jennifer Levin, an attorney with Disability Law Colorado, a nonprofit that is the designated legal advocate for Coloradans with disabilities. “They may assume because of diminished capacity they should not be given the opportunity to vote. We’ve had that happen.”
Extra measures to make sure all who want to can vote
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which issues pandemic guidelines for care facilities, referred voting questions to the state association of county clerks, who oversee voting and set procedures for their areas.
County clerks have always seen themselves as guardians of institutional residents’ right to vote, and many have taken extraordinary measures in the past to get ballots to group living homes and help people fill them out, said Pam Anderson, executive director of the Colorado County Clerks Association.
This year, clerks are working out ballot-drop procedures with the care facilities in their area, and providing training materials to staff on how to help willing voters fill out ballots. Staff and residents can also take advantage of the 2019 legislation, to fill out ballots on facility computers and print them out along with an affidavit of identification. Clerks make arrangements to drop ballots and pick them up in secure boxes at or outside the entryways of facilities, Anderson said.
Any facility with eight or more voters, without independent mail delivery for each resident, can qualify for the extra county help, she said. Counties also have emergency voting rules that support return trips or attention for residential facilities when a resident or their family complain of a lost ballot or confusion about the system.
“This will be our second election under the pandemic,” Anderson said, referencing the June primary season that operated under the same rules with few glitches.
The modern phase of voting rights for people with disabilities, advocates say, began in earnest when Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002. The act took on everything from accessibility for voter registration, to updating voting machines in polling places, to opening up voting to those living in institutions, said Levin at Disability Law Colorado.
“So now every voting service needs to have an accessible machine for people that’s also modernized and runs smoothly. It needs to be accessible meaning it can accommodate a variety of disability issues, from low vision to wheelchairs,” Levin said. And it “allows a person of (their) choice to assist them. They can still require assistance if they need someone to help them walk in and fill out the ballot or use the machine, the judge cannot stop that from happening.”
Though advocates and election officials didn’t know it at the time, the 2019 electronic ballot and printing law took on added importance when the pandemic threw up new barriers to public access.
RTD, for example, which is a crucial lifeline for many riders with disabilities, cut bus and train service 40% as overall ridership plummeted and financial pressures forced massive budget cuts. The cuts severely diminished public transit to in-person polling places or ballot drop boxes.
Advocates look to move toward e-voting in the future
What Chong wants now is for the Secretary of State’s Office and other voting rights groups to advertise electronic ballot delivery more effectively. In fall 2019 and spring 2020 primary elections, using the system, only a couple of dozen voters across the state actually used it, he said.
And for future elections, one of the primary remaining goals for the disability rights community is completing the technology circle on electronic voting. Voters with disabilities should not have to expose themselves to the difficulties or — in case of a pandemic — the dangers of getting to the mail or a dropbox, Levin said. Colorado should seek the secure technology that would allow returning the ballot simply by hitting the “send” button on the same computer where voters now fill out their electronic ballot.
Voters with disabilities can currently return a ballot electronically under emergency ballot rules, and the pandemic does qualify as an emergency. But those requests can only be made starting seven days before the election, and most voters hearing the debates about the security of balloting this year want to get their tally in earlier, Levin said.
Many people overlook that there are plenty of voters, disabled or not, who don’t have a home printer for their ballot, Chong said. Using electronic return for more voters is inevitable and is on its way, he said.
“We think that tech will be available and secure within a year,” he said.
Todd Struve, who is blind, is another enthusiast of the voting systems Colorado has refined, whether using in-person machines, paper ballots at home, or the newer electronic-delivery method. In both Jefferson County and Denver voting, Struve said, he has found the voice-prompt machines convenient to use and the poll judges knowledgeable and helpful if anything goes wrong.
“There was only one hiccup once, and they just reset it and let me start all over again,” Struve said. “It was a fantastic experience, and felt good to just vote on my own, not depend on anybody else to get the job done. I could take my own time.”
Struve, though, also supports complete electronic voting at home as the next wave.
“If you can order a pizza online and have it delivered, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to vote online or on the phone; press 1 for this candidate, 2 for this candidate,” Struve said. “We have the technology; if we have the security, we should use that. That’s a goal not just for Colorado, but for everybody in the nation eventually. It would make life so much easier.”
What you need to know about accessible voting in Colorado:
The first stop for questions should be your county clerk’s office. A statewide directory with easy links is available here
Disability Law Colorado has information, helpline numbers, maps of drop-off sites and more about voting available at Just Vote Colorado
Closer to the election, disability rights advocates will have a live help line for election information or problems at 888-839-8682; they have hotlines to all county clerks for emergency situations.
The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office answers many questions about accessibility voting here
This story is part of a project produced with support from a grant from the American Press Institute.