Disability rights group foresees obstacles to voting

Nov 5, 2018

As candidates and political parties try to get out the vote on Election Day, another group is working to make sure that once people get to their polling place, they have the tools they need to cast a ballot.

Ballot-marking devices like this one are designed to help people who have trouble voting through traditional means, said Ericka Jones at Rochester's Center for Disability Rights.
Credit New York City Board of Elections

Ericka Jones tracks complaints about polling places that aren’t equipped to help people with disabilities, and tries to find solutions. Jones is the systems advocate at Rochester’s Center for Disability Rights, and she called Election Day “one of the most stressful days” of her year.

One of the most common problems that people with disabilities encounter when they try to vote, Jones said, is polling places that are not in accessible buildings.

But sometimes getting inside isn’t the biggest obstacle. Polling places are equipped with special voting machines to help people with disabilities register their choices. Those machines could be hooked up to a headset to play audio instructions, or a straw that registers sips and puffs for people who are unable to push buttons.

Too often, Jones said, there’s no one at the polling place who knows how the machines work. “The poll workers may not even know how to use the ballot-marking device. You can’t expect every disabled person coming in to know how to use it.”

Tom Ferrarese, one of the commissioners of the Monroe County elections board, said ballot-marking devices are available at all polling places in the county, and poll workers are trained on them yearly. But the machines are used so rarely that by the time Election Day rolls around, workers might be out of practice, he said.

The county has done a better job showing voters which polling sites are in accessible buildings in this election than in previous years, Jones said, but she’s still expecting to field a good number of calls from discouraged voters.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” she said. “I would love to have confidence that everything is going to go well and everyone’s going to be able to vote appropriately. If everything goes right this election, then maybe my opinion will change.”

This story is reported from WXXI’s Inclusion Desk.