By Katherine Schneider
I’m blind and the first time I ever voted by myself in 2006, I cried.
To me having a secret ballot is part of what it means to be an American. At every election before 2006, and the advent of the Help America Vote Act, I had to have a friend mark the ballot for me or one Democratic official and one Republican official help me. I’m sure my friends and the officials were ethical and didn’t tell the world who I voted for, but it just didn’t feel like a secret ballot.
In response to a Wisconsin Disability Vote Coalition survey of 423 Wisconsin residents with disabilities, their families and caregivers, nearly 7 percent reported challenges at the polls or believed they were unable to vote in the most recent election.
Survey respondents reported that they did not even attempt to vote because they believed they didn’t have a valid photo ID or would have to cast a provisional ballot due to photo ID or registration issues. Others reported having trouble getting transportation to their polling place or issues at their polling place because of photo ID requirements or interpretation of the law’s requirements by poll workers.
In an informal survey I conducted, voters who are blind and visually impaired described voting absentee, voting by using sighted assistance and by using the “handicapped” machine. Problems mentioned included: transportation issues, discomfort asking for help or difficulty using the “handicapped” machine and occasional poorly trained election officials and balky machines.
One woman who is blind said her main advice to voters who are blind and visually impaired is “be ready to be patient.” If the machine doesn’t talk, the election officials may have to text a repair person to come ASAP to fix it. As the handicapped machine reads through all the choices, before one can make a selection, take a deep breath. If you want to do a write-in, take a couple deep breaths before figuring out how to do the name using the keys on a number pad and hope it’s a short name.
Another issue is getting information about local candidates and accessibly issues in a timely fashion, especially if you do an absentee ballot. They are often due before the information comes out in the local paper, which may or may not be accessible to you through Newsline or on the Internet.
If you do experience difficulties voting that patience, working with local polling officials, and deep breathing do not fix, you can call the Disability Rights Wisconsin voting hotline at 1-800-928-8778.
Please vote. As a wonderful old lobbyist friend of mine says: “If you’re not at the table, you may well be on the menu.” Those issues and candidates you care about need your vote. Blindness-related organizations like the American Council of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind have legislative agendas, as do disability rights organizations like Crip the Vote. More information about Crip the Vote is available at: https://disabilityvisibilityproject.com/2016/01/27/cripthevote-our-voices-our-vote/.
If you have not voted as a person who is visually impaired or blind, try voting at the August 9 primary when there are less voters and a short ballot. See you at the polls!