Voters who are blind and visually impaired in Wisconsin face many challenges when casting a ballot.
These voters encounter hoops others do not have to navigate including getting a ballot in a user-friendly format and finding a way to fill it out and return it securely. They may not be able to cast their ballot privately without assistance and may be unable to vote at all.
The Wisconsin Council of the Blind & Visually Impaired is advocating for an accessible absentee ballot that would decrease some of the barriers to voting privately.
A Constant Struggle
For voters like Rhonda Staats of La Crosse, voting barriers are compounded by COVID-19. While many people opt to vote absentee to avoid the health risk, voting from home for people with blindness or vision impairment is also fraught with issues.
“There is no way that a blind person may vote independently using vote by mail,” Staats told Wisconsin Watch. She added that any form of voting in Wisconsin for a blind person is a “constant struggle.” Staats was among voters featured in a recent investigative story that you can read on the Wisconsin Watch website.
Being unable to vote without assistance is a loss of human dignity. The Council is fortunate to be partnering with the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC), Disability Rights Wisconsin, the Board for People with Developmental Disabilities and its Disability Vote Coalition on a number of initiatives to make voting accessible for all.
“Every single Wisconsinite who is eligible to vote should have access to vote privately and independently. It’s a basic right that most voters in the state never question,” says Council CEO/Executive Director Denise Jess.
Access for All
The pandemic brought accessible voting issues into the light this past year, with more people requesting absentee ballots.
The Council has asked Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers to create an accessible absentee ballot as part of his biennial budget. We hope the governor will provide funding to the Wisconsin Elections Commission to create an option for voters with disabilities who need accessible technology to vote.
Although it would not be costly, allowing voters to use an electronic ballot option with a screen reader would require legislative action. So, we have also requested that legislation introduced but not passed last session on an electronic ballot for military and overseas voters be reintroduced and expanded to include voters who cannot see, read or independently mark a ballot.
“A screen reader-accessible ballot that could be filled out online offers the most access regardless of format,” explains Denise. “While it doesn’t address all issues, it increases the circle of accessibility.”
The call for a fully electronic voting process that complies with the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) has been adopted by other states. West Virginia, New Jersey and Delaware now offer a fully online voting experience especially for those with disabilities.
Make a Plan
While the accessible absentee ballot is in the works, there are ways that BVI voters can navigate the current system. Voting absentee involves planning to request a ballot early and finding a way to sign and return the ballot envelope.
Absentee ballots in Braille or large print are available from municipal clerks. To request an accessible ballot in an alternate format, make a request to your municipal clerk at least two weeks ahead of the published deadline. Note that the process may take longer than a traditional absentee ballot request. Find information on your municipal clerk on the MyVote website.
If your municipal clerk does not know how to provide you an alternate-format absentee ballot or denies your request, direct them to the elections commission. WEC has information that will help them get you the ballot you need.
WEC also has great resources on its website that allow you to report a concern with voting accessibility. You can report a concern via a form on their website. You can also call 1-866-VOTE-WIS and be put in touch with an access specialist who can assist with your issue.
WEC is committed to accessibility, recognizing that, “all Wisconsin voters have a right to cast a ballot privately and independently.” It was the first Wisconsin agency to create an accessibility committee, of which the Council has been a member for several years. Thanks to this commitment, WEC was responsive to a screen-reader access issue that arose recently during annual website updates.
“The (Wisconsin Elections) Commission staff worked very quickly to resolve the matter,” says Council Access Technology Specialist Jim Denham. “I was very impressed with the organization’s dedication to this issue.”
You can also report voting access issues through the Disability Rights Wisconsin Voter Hotline at 1-844-347-8683. Find out more on the Disability Rights website.
Other requirements including signing the envelope are also an issue. The space given to sign the back of the absentee ballot envelope is tiny and if you cannot see it well enough to sign properly, there’s legitimate concern that your vote will not count.
Some screen magnifiers can help you to sign the envelope more accurately. You can also try using a signature guide, if you have someone to help you with this tool.
If you have had difficulty signing the envelope, please contact the Disability Vote Coalition so they can document it.
How to Help
There are a number of ways you can help achieve a fully accessible absentee ballot in Wisconsin.
1. Reach out to your legislators and tell them that you have experienced barriers to voting. Find out how to contact your legislator at the Wisconsin State Legislature website.
2. File a complaint with the Wisconsin Elections Commission. This is a way to document these issues from people experiencing them. The complaint form can be found at the WEC website. You can also call in a complaint at 1-866-VOTE-WIS.
3. Tell us your voting story. It’s simple and can mean so much as we work to make voting possible for everyone. Find our new story form on our website by navigating to the bottom of the media page on our website.
4. Plan to vote in upcoming spring elections. Wisconsin’s spring primary is Tuesday, February 16 and the spring election is on April 6. Statewide offices to be voted on include the State Superintendent of Public Instruction as well as certain Circuit Court judgeships. Find out more on the Wisconsin Disability Vote Coalition website.