The latest Election Data Dispatch from Pew finds that in the recent GOP primary in Florida, only 49 voters (or 0.03%) used the disabled-accessible voting machines in Miami-Dade and Orange counties, two of the state’s largest.
Accessible machines for disabled voters – one per polling place – were one of the federal mandates on state and local election offices included in the Help America Vote Act. Inclusion of this provision was widely seen a victory for the advocates for disabled voters, given the perceived failure of previous efforts to make voting more accessible such as the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act (VAEHA).
Post-HAVA, however, the preferred technology for this mandate – direct recording electronic (DRE) machines, known popularly as touchscreen machines – became the focus of a fierce debate about the security and transparency of electronic voting. Indeed, in the early years of the debate advocates for the disabled and advocates for verifiable voting often found themselves on opposite sides of the argument or even opposing sides in a courtroom.
Over time, however, as DRE machines across the country are increasingly being replaced by optical scan ballots, HAVA’s mandate is generating resistance from election officials who see it as unnecessary and wasteful. Data such as that cited by Pew is only likely to buttress those arguments.
It’s not like access for the disabled isn’t a priority; indeed, some of the most interesting and innovative research currently being done in the field focuses on ways to make the voting process more usable for all voters, including the disabled. It doesn’t help that we don’t really have a firm grasp on how many voters are “disabled” or even what constitutes a disability.
Pew’s data suggests, however, that for whatever reason HAVA’s approach – designated accessible machines for the disabled in the polling place – isn’t having the impact it was expected to have. Absent data, I’m tempted to guess that disabled voters are using alternate means to cast their ballots – which likely means they’re seeking assistance in casting those ballots, which in turn defeats the purpose of HAVA’s goal of allowing such voters to cast a private and independent ballot.
The solution may be new accessible technology that satisfies other concerns, new procedures to allow disabled voters to use existing methods to vote independently or evidence that these voters are more interested in voting than in doing so without assistance. Regardless, Pew’s data – which seems to match other reports from across the country – suggests that it might be time to look past the HAVA mandate to new approaches that hold out better promise of actually getting the job done.