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Blind Iowans Ask State To Make Voting By Mail Accessible

In-person voting sites have accessible voting machines for voters with disabilities, but blind Iowans are asking state officials to approve technology that would allow them to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.
Michael Leland
In-person voting sites have accessible voting machines for voters with disabilities, but blind Iowans are asking state officials to approve technology that would allow them to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

More Iowans are voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic than ever before, and blind and visually impaired voters have been asking state officials to allow them to do the same.

In-person voting sites have accessible voting machines and the option of curbside voting for voters with disabilities. But until the state allows blind Iowans to use assistive technology at home for voting by mail, they either have to get someone to help them, or vote in person.

Iowa Council of the United Blind President Carrie Chapman said she had to have someone help her fill out her absentee ballot. Blind voters using an absentee ballot just have to trust that the person who helps them is voting for the people they choose.

“There’s people that don’t have an option of having someone come and help them,” Chapman said. “And especially during the pandemic, they may be high risk, so having someone come into their home is a whole other ballgame in terms of that.”

Chapman said getting transportation to vote in person can also be more complicated and risky as Iowa continues to have a high rate of new coronavirus infections.

The ICUB, the National Federation of the Blind of Iowa and Disability Rights Iowa have been asking the Iowa secretary of state and lawmakers for more than a year to approve a remote ballot marking system.

It would allow blind or visually impaired voters could use a computer program at home to receive the ballot electronically, read the ballot out loud, mark the ballot, print it, and mail it to their county auditor.

Disability Rights Iowa Executive Director Jane Hudson said there are an estimated 54,000 Iowans who are blind or visually impaired, and some want to vote by mail because of COVID-19.

“So they can’t vote independently and privately—they have to depend on someone else,” Hudson said. “And you know, that’s not voting. You’re supposed to be able to vote privately, and secretly, and no one else knows what your vote is.”

Hudson said Iowa is legally obligated to give blind voters the same voting rights as others.

According to a letter the groups sent to state officials in September, at least 20 states have approved this technology for absentee ballots, some as a result of lawsuits.

Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate has said the legislature needs to pass a law to make this change.

After meeting with advocates in 2019, Pate’s office proposed a bill to establish a remote ballot marking pilot program in a few counties. But the Iowa Legislature never formally considered it during the 2020 legislative session, even before COVID-19 cut it short.

“There were other things going on, and disabled Iowans once again were kind of pushed aside,” Chapman said. “Or at least, that’s how we felt.”

“Our office will continue to make this a legislative priority,” said Kevin Hall, a spokesperson for the secretary of state. “However, the office does not have the authority to unilaterally enact new election systems. It requires legislative approval.”

But the groups pushing for accessible mail voting disagree.

When the legislative session resumed in June, a new law was passed that requires Pate to get emergency election changes approved by the Legislative Council, a Republican-majority group of 24 lawmakers.

“He’s made a lot of requests to this 24-member Legislative Council to make tweaks to the election law, so people can vote safely and so auditors can do their jobs, but he won’t do it,” Hudson said. “He won’t make the request.”

In recent months, the Legislative Council has approved multiple proposals from Pate. They include the sending of absentee ballot request forms to all active registered voters, barring county auditors from sending pre-filled ballot requests, and giving election officials more time to process absentee ballots.

Hall said Pate met with advocates for blind Iowans last week and described the options they have for voting in the 2020 election.

Chapman said that on the call, Pate mentioned implementing a remote ballot marking system would take time.

“We’ve had time,” said Chapman, noting she first met with Pate’s office about this issue in July 2019. “We’ve had so much time that we could have fixed this way before the pandemic.”

Hudson said she believes an accessible mail voting system could be set up within 10 days.

Hall noted Pate won a national award in 2018 for his efforts to help Iowans with disabilities be able to vote, and mentioned Pate has worked with Disability Rights Iowa on several initiatives to improve voting accessibility and outreach.

“He also offered again to work with the group and other advocates to continue to encourage the legislature to implement a pilot program for future elections,” Hall said.

Chapman and Hudson said they are still hoping for accessible mail voting to be approved before the early voting period ends Nov. 2.

Voting information for Iowans with disabilities is available here.

Katarina Sostaric is IPR's State Government Reporter