Some voters with disabilities say they feel like 'second class citizens' in their struggle to cast a ballot like the able bodied

Matthew Hatcher/Getty ImagesStaff of the Franklin County Board of Elections take measures to sanitize voting stations and provisional ballot envelop stations in Ohio on April 28, 2020.
  • This year, voters with disabilities nationwide told Business Insider how they have been pushing election officials to ensure that they can cast a ballot privately and independently.
  • Voters with disabilities face a wide array of obstacles when casting their ballots, including a lack of support from local election officials and accessibility issues at election sites.
  • Some voters have gone to great lengths to spread awareness of these accessibility issues and create the same opportunity for themselves in Tuesday’s election.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

People with disabilities in states across the country have been preparing for weeks to vote in this year’s presidential election.

They have taken steps able-bodied voters ordinarily wouldn’t, several people with disabilities told Business Insider. In Florida and Pennsylvania, for example, some voters told Business Insider they took on the added mantle of serving as their own advocates, attending town halls, and imploring their local election officials for guarantees that they can cast a ballot privately and independently.

Despite their preparation and research ahead of Election Day, these efforts seemed largely ineffective as accessibility issues prevailed and made it difficult to vote securely as any able-bodied person could.

Voting in person took Marsha Bukala hours. A 62-year-old visually impaired woman in Florida, Bukala detailed to Business Insider the long-winded process she had been involved in to vote securely.

Bukala chose to vote in person rather than send a ballot by mail because it had “really, really small print” that she wouldn’t have been able to make out on her own without assistance from another person.

When she went to the polls in October, she waited in line to use the site’s single available accessible voting machine. She asked the poll workers to black out the screen so she could use it without people around seeing her votes.

“We don’t know how to do that,” Bukala said a poll worker told her. She asked the poll workers to instead turn the tables and the machine to face away from people.

The poll workers’ lack of knowledge struck Bukala, who days ahead of voting had asked her county’s supervisor of elections whether they would be aware of the process for in-person accessible voting.

Millions of people are opting to vote by mail this year because of the pandemic. But accessibility needs must still be met for in-person voting, according to disability rights attorney Eve Hill.

“Many polling places discourage people with and without disabilities from using the accessible machines because of confusion about how they work,” Hill said. “As a result, to this day, those machines are often only used by people with disabilities, making their votes less private than the votes of people without disabilities.”

Bukala was ultimately able to cast her vote, but the process ate away two hours of her day and underscored the issues of accessibility that continue to permeate the US election system.

People with disabilities have to put in “a lot of work to vote in general,” said Sarah Meek, senior director of legislative affairs at ANCOR, a national network of providers offering support services for people with disabilities.

In Pennsylvania, another voter with a disability described to Business Insider the weeks-long process she engaged in to vote, despite her taking several steps to prepare ahead of the election.

Christine Hunsinger kept checking the state’s website with information on voting for instructions on casting her accessible ballot. For weeks, she couldn’t find any updated information. She decided to attend an in-person town hall with a state legislator to ask, where she was given a link with ballot instructions she could not find on her own.

Hunsinger, who’s print-impaired, also had difficulty finding the spot where she had to sign her ballot. She tried calling the county but was met with long wait times to reach someone who could help. She ultimately used an app to connect with a volunteer assistant who helped her navigate the ballot.

Measures like these take away a person’s agency and make voters with disabilities feel like they’re treated like a “second-class citizen,” said Nancy Burgess-Hall, a Florida voter. Burgess-Hall and her husband, Doug, were involved in a weeks-long lawsuit against the state of Florida to increase accessibility in voting. They reached a settlement, with all 67 Florida counties mandated to provide accessible vote-by-mail options by March 2022.

It’s a step in the right direction, Doug said, to providing voters with disabilities greater agency and independence when casting a ballot.

“Some people may choose to want to have someone to help them. I don’t really want to,” Bukala said, echoing the need for expanding options for voters with disabilities. “I want to be able to do it on my own. And I mean, we should have that and it should work. It should be available to us and not a problem.”

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