There are 200,000 visually impaired or blind individuals who will be able to vote in the upcoming November elections thanks to new tech innovations that are available at ever polling place in the city.
The technology has actually been around for years, but Ariel Merkel, the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) coordinator for the NYC Board of Elections said many visually impaired and blind individuals are still not aware how easy it can be for them to vote. “It provides voters with disabilities the ability to mark their ballot privately and independently,” stated Merkel on September 26 during a presentation on the accessibility of voting at the Lighthouse Guild.
When voting in-person, there are around 1,200 poll sites in New York City located at different areas like schools, libraries, and museums. Out of all these poll sites, 100 are open nine days prior to election day, giving voters the opportunity to beat the election day crunch.
Despite the countless areas available to vote once inside a polling place, Merkel and her Units have worked diligently to ensure that polling sites that were physically hazardous for blind and visually impaired individuals were addressed to ensure safe access on Election Day.
During the presentation, Merkel showed images of the outside of a few sites showing uneven walkways, protruding air conditioning units, and cracked sidewalks that can all lead to severe injuries. Merkel has issued a call for additional cones to be put in place so people who use walking sticks will be able to detect the cones as well as slopped mats, platforms, more dynamic signage, and temporary doorbells.
Once people have finally stepped through the threshold, the voting can begin–if there is enough space. Moving from an information desk, privacy booth and or Ballot Marking Device (BMD), and finally to the scanner that officially castes your vote may seem easy, but not to those who are in a wheelchair or visually impaired. Part of Merkel’s job is to assure that there will be a three feet wide path with a five foot radius space, “in order to ensure ADA compliance.”
New York City uses the AutoMark device and has at least one at every poll site, but many people still do not know they exist.
“It aligns with our mission which is to provide opportunities for our clients to live independently and empowered, ” said the Lighthouse Guild Chief Volunteer Officer, Cheryl Pemberton-Graves. “With clients being able to come here and get their questions answered, touch and feel these machines, it is really important. There were some that didn’t even know these machines and equipment were available at every poll in the state and were supposed to be given this kind of support.”
The AutoMark device, or as Merkel put it, “a fancy pen,” also gives voters various language options and includes a zoom and high contrast option, touch screen, audio assistance, headphones, magnifying glass, stylus pen, a sip-and-puff and rocker paddle devices. The two latter devices are accessible ways to select “yes” or “no” by either breathing in or out or using the paddle by pressing either button with your foot or hand to navigate through the ballot.
Shannely, who did not give her last name is a receptionist and administrative aid for Lighthouse Guild’s volunteer department who works with assistive technology assistance said: “I have used the BMD to vote since I lost my vision and I don’t find it difficult at all. The buttons are like Bluetooth speakers. As for the absentee ballot, if you have any familiarity with any phone or tablet you will not find it difficult,” she said. “It’s a basic swipe and tap and everything is read out loud to you.”
If you choose to opt-out of using the BMD, there are privacy booths with ADA-focused poll workers.
With either of these options, individuals who are disabled, blind, or visually impaired have the right to have someone they trust for assistance with marking their ballot. Although according to the Board of Elections, this person cannot be the individual’s employer, union representative, poll watcher, or a candidate on the ballot. This person is also required to swear and sign an “assistance oath.”
If the individual makes an error, they are entitled to a max of three ballots.
Instead of making the trip in-person to vote, there is also an option available to apply for an accessible absentee ballot–an electronic ballot–allowing you to vote from the comfort of your home. This option allows individuals to use their personal technologies. The issue here is that individuals who are not able-bodied would not be able to physically mail their ballot. According to the New York State Election law, a paper ballot is required to be sent to the Board of Elections, it cannot be electronically sent. In this case, Merkel will be mailing envelopes with pre-postage that can be dropped off at a post office, pole site, or to a borough office. There is also an option to download envelopes, “which is a bit trickier.”
The last day to apply for an absentee ballot for this coming election is on Monday, October 23.
In an interview with Straus, Merkel said, “There are so many invisible disabilities and so many people with disabilities that don’t identify as such. Disability is a community that has porous boundaries. Anyone can enter at any point in their life and sometimes exit at any point of their life. What we found is that not many people are aware of all the accommodations and adaptations that exist for them. It is constant informing and outreach that is necessary because it is not a static demographic.”
“What we found is that not many people are aware of all the accommodations and adaptations that exist for them.” Ariel Merkel, the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) coordinator for the NYC Board of Elections