‘Bumpy’ Election Day for some Monroe County voters with disabilities

Nov 7, 2018

Rochester's Center for Disability Rights has started sorting through what the organization’s systems advocate Ericka Jones called a "bumpy" Election Day.

Rochester's Center for Disability Rights says people with disabilities faced some obstacles to voting in Tuesday's midterm election.
Credit Center for Disability Rights

Jones spent the day tracking problems that people with disabilities encountered at polling sites. She said complaints around specially designed voting machines called “ballot-marking devices” came up often.

Those machines offer a variety of ways to help people with disabilities register their votes. Ballot-marking devices could be hooked up to a headset to play audio instructions, or to a straw that registers sips and puffs for people who are unable to push buttons.

Jones said problematic situations cropped up across Monroe County. At the Campbell Street Recreation Center, Jones said a man’s ballot wouldn’t scan, and a worker took it without a privacy sleeve to a desk where other workers were sitting and showed them his ballot. The man got frustrated and left without voting, Jones said.

At a polling site at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Jones said a blind woman was given a magnifying glass to help her read her ballot, and when she asked about a ballot-marking device, poll workers told her it would take at least 20 minutes to turn it on and get it ready.

Monroe County Board of Elections commissioner Tom Ferrarese said the board can investigate those complaints if they’re forwarded to his staff. The machines log the times that they’re turned on, Ferrarese said, and they should be turned on when the polling site opens.

Jones said the complaints she cited might seem trivial, but they’re part of a larger pattern of obstacles or indignities that people with disabilities face when they try to vote.

“It’s not uncommon at all for a poll worker to violate the privacy of a person with disabilities at the voting booth, even when they’re just trying to help,” she said.

Ballot-marking devices were available at every polling place in Monroe County, the elections board said, and poll workers are trained on their use at least annually. Ferrarese said more than 100 workers came to a refresher course the Saturday before the election.

Jones said the training doesn’t seem to be enough, given the problems she heard about with the machines.

“I mean, they are not giant paperweights,” Jones said. “We want to make sure that people know that they're there, that they're being shown correctly how to use them, and that, and the end of the day, their vote was heard.”

This story is reported from WXXI’s Inclusion Desk.