July 13, 2020

Voters with disabilities are accustomed to obstacles. How will COVID-19 impact accessibility?

Matt Petras
Photograph of a row of ballot scanning machines.
A ballot scanning machine used by Allegheny County to scan absentee ballots during the June 2, 2020 primary election. (Photo by Jay Manning/Rtvsrece)

Joyce Driben, a 79-year-old blind woman from Greenfield, typically votes in person using a voting machine with accessibility options. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she didn’t feel safe going out to vote for the June 2 primary, so she turned to Pennsylvania’s new mail-in ballot option.

“You need to have a sighted person with you to fill them out because in order to fill them out, you must darken little boxes on the ballot,” Driben said of the mail-in ballot. “Now if you can’t see, in addition to not seeing where the names are, you can’t see the little boxes.”

She would not have been able to complete the ballot independently, she said. Following a lawsuit over accessibility, Pennsylvania announced a partially electronic option for remote voting six days before the June 2 primary, but Driben would not have been able to use this method anyway because she doesn’t own a computer.

“Fortunately, I have somebody I trust who could fill mine out for me, but sometimes that’s a little difficult,” Driben said.

Photograph portrait of an older blind woman wearing dark glasses.

Joyce Driben, 79, outside her home in Greenfield. Driben, who is blind, typically votes in person. (Photo by Ryan Loew/Rtvsrece)

Even before the pandemic, accessibility has long been an issue at polling places. Some local voters with disabilities note past problems with ramps and voting machines that required assistance to use. While all eligible Pennsylvanians can now vote by mail, hiccups during the primary meant some voters still had to show up in person or not have their votes counted. Meanwhile, the pandemic means voters with disabilities could be risking their lives by going out, even if voting has gone smoothly in the past.

A federal survey from 2016 found that about 60% of 178 polling places examined by the Government Accountability Office had at least one potential impediment for voters with disabilities, such as lack of signs indicating accessible paths or steep ramps.

Nearly 14% of Pennsylvanians have a disability, a percentage slightly higher than the national rate. And in national elections, eligible voters with disabilities voted at a lower rate than individuals without a disability, even as turnout surged in the 2018 midterms. According to a Rutgers University study, 49.3% of eligible voters with a disability voted nationwide that election, compared to 54% of eligible voters without a disability.

A federal survey from 2016 found that about 60% of 178 polling places examined by the Government Accountability Office had at least one potential impediment for voters with disabilities, such as lack of signs indicating accessible paths or steep ramps.

State officials have said they’re balancing how to meet the needs of accessible voting for people with disabilities while maintaining secure elections.

Allegheny County is also working to increase accessibility. As the county consolidated polling places during the recent primary, locations such as schools and municipal buildings compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA] were prioritized, according to David Voye, manager of the Allegheny County Elections Division. The county equipped its polling places with machines that offer Braille, audio and options to increase text size. Voters with disabilities could either bring someone to help them or ask a poll worker to assist them. When the county begins to move back to the full suite of polling places for the November election, ADA compliance will be addressed, county spokesperson Amie Downs said.

Despite these efforts, some voters with disabilities argue the new mail-in voting system creates confusion and additional accessibility barriers, even as the threat of COVID-19 means voting in person could endanger their lives.

Past barriers

Alisa Grishman, head of the advocacy group Access Mob Pittsburgh, said polling place accessibility has been a mixed bag in Allegheny County over the years. She also notes that churches and other religious institutions are exempt from ADA compliance, meaning a polling place in a church could have accessibility issues.

“In a place that has steps, they may provide a metal ramp, but that doesn't mean that it’s a safe metal ramp or that the staff there is trained to use it,” Grishman said. “Also, often they don’t have accessible parking or you have to get across gravel driveway, which defeats the purpose of having a quote-unquote accessible entranceway.”

Heather Tomko has voted in person in the past but turned to mail-in voting for the June 2 primary out of concern for her health during the pandemic. Tomko, who has spinal muscular atrophy, uses a wheelchair that can elevate her to heights more comparable to someone standing. But that has only helped so much in the past — she could reach the touch screen but not the button that completes the voting process.

“I obviously had to get one of the people working the polling location to help me, and they were more than willing, but it was just kind of an extra step that I would have rather been able to do independently,” Tomko, 31, said.

Photograph of Heather Tomko in her office. She is sitting in her wheelchair and holding a cup of coffee with a straw. Behind her are files, papers and folders.

Heather Tomko, pictured in her office at the Pitt Public Health building, favors mail-in voting due to health concerns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Jay Manning/Rtvsrece)

She already had interest in voting by mail, and the risks associated with leaving home during the pandemic pushed her to do it for the first time for the recent primary. She isn’t necessarily at a higher risk of contracting the virus, but she could develop severe symptoms if she does and has previously been hospitalized for a bad case of the flu. She and the family members she lives with, including her sister who also has spinal muscular atrophy, have been very cautious during the pandemic.

“Even though technically Allegheny County and Pittsburgh are in the green phase,” Tomko said, “we still very much live our lives like it’s the red phase because we know how really life-threatening it would be if either I or my sister contracted the coronavirus.”

Accessibility by mail

While voting by mail eliminates the need to leave home, some voters with disabilities and advocacy groups have pointed out that the system for mail-in ballots can still be burdensome.

Even though mail-in ballots are now universally available without needing an excuse, mail-in ballots and absentee ballots are still two separate categories, which, according to Kelly Darr of Disability Rights PA, creates confusion over which method a voter is supposed to use.

Having these two separate ballots is required by state law, according to Wanda Murren, a spokesperson for the Department of State, even though any voter can use a mail-in ballot.

The commonwealth directs individuals unable to go to the polls, along with voters such as college students not registered with their school address, to fill out an absentee ballot instead of a regular mail-in ballot. This form requires individuals unable to vote in person due to a disability to disclose their disability or illness along with their doctor’s name and contact information.

“There’s absolutely no reason for that information to have to be disclosed by a voter when there is universal, no-excuse, mail-in balloting available to everyone else,” Darr said.

Photograph of Alisa Grisham outside on the sidewalk with the street behind her. She is in her wheelchair and wearing a T-shirt that says “not your inspiration” and below it is a silhouette of a person in a wheelchair.

Alisa Grishman, head of the advocacy group Access Mob Pittsburgh, said polling place accessibility has been a mixed bag in Allegheny County over the years. (Photo by Ryan Loew/Rtvsrece)

Disability Rights PA worked with blind voters in a court challenge over mail-in ballots. For the majority of the time period since the application process for mail-in ballots started in February, voters had to fill out a physical form, meaning it did not have the accessible features that an electronic form offers, including audio and text enlargement.

For the primary election, the court challenge led to a victory for voters with disabilities. If a blind voter applied for a ballot but didn’t already vote before May 28, a court order said they could request a more accessible electronic ballot. However, this ballot could not be submitted electronically — voters still had to print it out and either mail it or submit the ballot in person after filling it out.

Though some states have allowed blind voters to submit ballots entirely electronically, this has faced scrutiny by election security experts who believe this is not secure. Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar shared a similar view in a June 1 virtual press conference.

“At this point, we are not aware of any form of submitting a voted ballot electronically that’s considered secure,” Boockvar said. “Once that happens, we will be happy to consider options, but until that happens, we can’t have insecure electronic transmission of voted ballots.”

Disability Rights PA looked to a similar case litigated in Michigan in early May and described Pennsylvania’s solution as a “Band-Aid.”

“This is not an ideal solution, and this is not something that we are saying is a really accessible option for people to do this,” Darr said.

The path forward

David Hale, a 40-year-old McKees Rocks resident who uses a wheelchair, plans on voting in the general election in person. He’s not convinced voting by mail is foolproof.

See also Allegheny County voters identify 5 issues to address before November presidential election

“There’s things that can go wrong with sending it in the mail versus being there, going down, and going through the process,” Hale said. “I’d rather go through the process of voting, of using the machines and everything, instead of sending it off. There’s more trust there.”

In the past, voting has been a smooth experience for him.

“I could wheel right into the polling center and the machines were easy to operate,” Hale said. “It’s just been an easy process, and… people were there in case I needed help.”

It’s unclear what the general election will be like in November because of the unpredictable nature of COVID-19. For individuals with a disability, the hope is that steps are taken to be sure voting is accessible. Some have witnessed improvement firsthand.

At Grishman’s polling place, a fire station near her current home in Uptown, she found one year that the ramp setup didn’t work for her wheelchair, which meant she couldn’t use it to get to the polling place. Thankfully, the firefighters “bent over backwards” for her, she said — they let her enter through the garage, brought a polling machine to her and helped her stand long enough to vote.

The next election, she noticed they installed a ramp her wheelchair could climb properly.

“Absolute props to them for doing that and stepping up,” Grishman said.

Matt Petras is a freelance reporter based in the Pittsburgh area as well as a writing and journalism tutor for Point Park University. He can be reached at matt456p@gmail.com or on Twitter @mattApetras.

This story was fact-checked by Erin West.

A note from this story’s adviser:

People with disabilities learn at an early age that we’ve inherited an imperfectly accessible world. Each of us has a kind of individualized assessment standard, where we evaluate whether we’re comfortable with the circumstances and risks of doing something like voting in person, or by mail. For many of us, this will be even harder to evaluate because of the added complexities of COVID-19 and mask and social distancing needs, and the newness of voting by mail. It’s imperative that state and local voting officials resolve known access and safety problems now and provide voters with early, easy, accessible and safe ways to vote. Equally imperative is that all voters quickly choose how they are going to vote and do so as early as possible. Only some of the problems are predictable; we need to build in a cushion of time to deal with surprises.

—Paul O’Hanlon, a recently retired lawyer who specialized in voting rights law for 15 years.