– This is the fourth in a series of articles about elections in Washington State by San Juan County Auditor F. Milene Henley. The County Auditor administers elections and voter registration in the County.
Voting is for everyone. That may seem obvious, but if you’re blind, or have mobility or mental competency issues, it may not be so obvious. Both the State Elections Division of the Secretary of State’s Office and the County Elections Office play a part in ensuring access to voting for all eligible voters.
San Juan County has some unique challenges for residents with disabilities. We rank among the lowest counties in reported incidence of disabilities in the state (according to the American Community Survey 2010), possibly because of our limited access to medical and care facilities. But for the disabled who do live here, access can be a special problem, because of country roads, poor broadband, and limited services.
Elections staff do what we can to help. Since 2006, counties have been required to have Disability Advisory Committees to develop plans to improve access to elections for voters with disabilities. Disability Advisory Committees are comprised of local voters with disabilities and professionals who work with the disabled. They meet at least once a year to review their county’s accessibility plan and to discuss ways to assist the disabled not only with elections, but also with issues in the community. Our elections office is always looking for new members for our committee.
San Juan County, as all counties in Washington, also owns an Accessible Voting Unit (AVU). This computerized voting “booth,” located in the elections office in Friday Harbor, allows voters to vote in a variety of assistive ways. The visually impaired can listen to the entire ballot, which has been read and recorded by elections staff for this purpose. Mobility-impaired voters can mark their ballots using “sip and puff” and select wheel technologies. The booth is wheelchair accessible and includes privacy screening to maintain secrecy. It can be taken to curbside for voters unable to get out of their cars.
Despite all that technology, the AVU hasn’t been used in years, an observation which is consistent with what we hear from our Disability Advisory Committee: that most disabled people prefer to vote at home, with the assistance, if needed, of family or friends, rather than to come into the office. So we do what we can to make it easy for people to vote from home.
In fact, Vote-by-mail (VBM) is itself an assistance to mobility-impaired voters, as it removes the need to get to a voting site. The Secretary of State also offers a variety of online tools to ensure access, including accessible formats of the state voters’ pamphlet. In a recent review, the Secretary discovered that the online MyVote and MyBallot systems were not current with the most modern options for access. State Elections staff worked with a technical team to bring those systems into compliance with current standards for working with assistive devices, including mobile technologies, used by disabled and visually-impaired voters. That solution is now online and ready for use in the Presidential Primary. Ballots can also be marked online. (Ballots marked online still have to be printed and submitted with a signed declaration.)
There are, of course, daily ways in which we assist voters in less technological ways. When an elderly voter was recently driven to the elections office by a caretaker, staff went out to the car to assist with her voter registration. That’s not doing anything special, of course; that’s just neighbor helping neighbor. If there’s a way we can help you to vote, please let us know.