Private voting is a right, it should not require sight.
National Federation of the Blind of Missouri Calls for Equal Voting Rights for the Blind
Kansas City, Missouri (May 1, 2023): The National Federation of the Blind of Missouri is a nonpartisan organization committed to promoting the welfare and rights of the blind and visually impaired, as well as the sighted individuals who support our cause. We are a diverse group, including conservatives, liberals, democrats, republicans, and independents. We are united around many goals, one of which is ensuring the right to vote privately and independently for blind people.
In recent elections, blind voters have faced difficulties in accessing ballot marking devices, which are essential to enable us to vote privately and independently. These devices allow blind people to hear the ballot choices and reflect their choices on a paper ballot by using a keypad with buttons to make their selections. These devices do not count votes but simply mark paper ballots that are then counted by the units that tally votes according to the selections made by each county. Unfortunately, the availability of ballot marking devices has been inconsistent, which is in violation of two federal laws.
The National Federation of the Blind of Missouri and other concerned organizations of the blind have filed complaints with the Department of Justice, urging the federal Attorney General to address this issue. In response, the Department sent election monitors to verify our concerns, but they were turned away with the argument that no one can interfere with Missouri’s election process. The clear implication asserted and reported was that the federal government was trying to do just that. This refusal to observe and address our concerns has left us as victims in a battle framed around state's rights when the real issue is our right to vote with the same secret ballot that others take for granted.
As an organization, we strive to help everyone without regard to their political affiliation. The diversity of our membership, being a cross-section of Missourians, demands it; so too do the laws that grant us limited tax exemptions.
“The right of blind people to vote privately and independently should not be compromised or overlooked in anyone's messaging in their pursuit of higher office,” said Melissa Kane, Chair of the NFB of Missouri’s Accessible voting Committee. “Blind citizens, like all Americans, have a personal stake in the issues that confront our country and the world. It is vital that our right to vote is not overshadowed by philosophical or ideological wars in which we have no part but end up being the victims.”
We call upon every candidate to embrace our right to vote privately and independently based on two simple principles: Voting is a fundamental right and a sacred obligation in our country and because they may well be the beneficiary of our votes. The National Federation of the Blind of Missouri will continue to advocate for the voting rights of the blind and visually impaired, ensuring that our voices are heard in the democratic process.
Shelia Wright, President
National Federation of the Blind of Missouri
In the Kansas City, Missouri, election authority, during the August 2019 election, David Hutchins was told that there was no accessible machine at his normal precinct and was encouraged to go to the Whole Person, an independent living center. There he was able to vote, but the distance he was required to travel was significantly different from the place to which he and his neighbors are assigned.
In Springfield, Green County Missouri, during the November 2018 election, Gary Horchem voted absentee, but there was no option other than a paper ballot to do this. He therefore needed sighted help and could not vote privately and independently.
I reside in Washington, Missouri, in the Franklin County. The first time an accessible voting machine was onsite that I was informed of was in the 2016 presidential election. The machine was not hooked up. After they got it up and running, I had no problem using it. But, when I was done, no one knew what to do with the small slip of paper the machine printed. I doubt my vote was even counted.
In 2018 I did not use the machine because of the experience I had in 2016. In 2020 I again wanted to use the machine. It was not connected again. I waited for a while, but the person did not seem to be making any progress, so I gave up and had them help me mark the ballot.
A couple of weeks after the election I called my county clerk. He told me they were told by the Secretary of State’s office the machine only had to be on site and not actually connected. Then he asks me if I used it in the last election, and I said no. He said that was why the machine was not connected.
Dacia Cole of Columbia, MO, in Boone County, had problems during the November 2018 election because the audio would not work on the machine at the polling place to which she was assigned. Voting could occur only by her going to the office of the Boone County clerk, and there she was able to use a machine to cast her vote privately and independently.
In the April 2021 election in Camden County, an eighteen-year-old blind woman named Ms. Boucher, who wished to vote for the first time, went to her polling place. Equipment was not setup, and she was told that her mother, who is sighted, should help her. This Ms. Bourcher did under protest.
Below are my experiences voting in St. Louis County Missouri:
If I can get transportation to the polling place, I can vote using the accessible voting machine. However, there has been a time or two when the machine was unavailable due to the technology. Otherwise at the polling place, I would have to have a sighted person mark my ballot. I then lose my right to a private ballot.
I have also voted using an absentee ballot. Nothing about this process is accessible for me as a blind person. First, I get a letter which I need to fill in to request a ballot for the upcoming election. A sighted person needs to fill this in. Next is the ballot itself. I cannot read it, and scanning it on my computer does not get successful results. I must have someone read it to me so that I know what is on the ballot. Later, when I am ready to vote, I must have someone mark this ballot. Lastly, there is information including a signature which must be written on the ballot envelope. Again, I do not have a private ballot!
In the November 2020 election, in Butler County, Carol Morgan, a blind woman from Poplar Bluff, called ahead to ensure she could vote privately and independently. After talking to several people, all of whom seemed to be confused by what she was asking, Carol was told to go to the polling place and vote. When she arrived, no one knew how to set up the machine. She was encouraged to use a paper ballot and would be provided with a representative from the Democrat and Republican Party to help her fill it out. She refused, and after waiting for someone to be dispatched, a machine she could use was turned on and made operational. Additionally, during the August 2020 election, she voted absentee as she was told they would not have the accessible machine available because they did not have anybody to train them on the new machines due to COVID. Once she sent in her application, she was called and informed that she needed to choose a party because it was a primary. She explained that she did not know this and was informed that it was highlighted. She explained that she could not see. She was then told that she needed to write it on a piece of paper, sign it, take a picture of it and then email it to them. Eventually they agreed that she could inform them verbally. This she did and received a ballot. She had to have her mother help her complete the ballot because it was not accessible.
This experience comes from Carolyn McGhee, a woman in Springfield, Green County, regarding her August 2020 experience: I got to my polling place, and at first they didn't even tell me they had an accessible voting machine. I ended up attempting to fill out a paper ballot, but that got thrown out because the ballot scanner you feed it into said I filled too many circles in one of the contests. We had to throw that ballot out. It was at that point that they told me they had an accessible machine, but they didn't start the day with it and had to request it. The square pad that has the arrows on it didn't work at all at first. One of the workers had to manually type in my information using the screen because the pad didn't work. Then it wouldn't accept my information, displaying "No results found." We put in my name a few different ways, and the worker ended up calling someone to help figure out why it wasn't pulling up my information. Once we got it working and I got to the candidate lists, it was fine. The headphones that are provided don't have any noise cancelling ability. I got there early, but once people started coming to vote, hearing the audio from the machine and filling in the options gets harder to do because the audio is harder to hear. I contacted Springfield's ADA coordinator, and she said she would forward my concerns to the county clerk.
I've used accessible voting machines every time since 2018, and it seems every time we have issues getting the ballot loaded, getting logged in, or getting to the choice screen. Once I get to the choices, I'm good and don't have any more issues.
Kim Vaughn, who votes in the St. Louis City election authority, writes: I am not only blind, but I am also Deaf in my left ear and wear a hearing aid in the right one. I tried to use the accessible voting machine in the last election but was unable to do it, due to the volume being too low and conversations going on in the background. No matter how loud I tried to turn it up, it was still not loud enough, so I was unable to vote independently. I needed someone’s assistance at the polling place to help me complete filling out my ballot. This is not the first time this has happened.
Cory McMahon lives in Jefferson City, Cole County, and voted in August 2020: My experience was that I showed up to vote, and the workers were unable to get the accessible voting machines working, saying, 'We don't set these up every day" I should note that the workers were cordial, and one of them did read and mark my ballot for me.
Gene Fleeman of Lee’s Summit, Jackson County election authority, voted in August 2020: I voted at the precinct today. I asked for an accessible voting machine and was immediately taken to a touch screen that could be enlarged. The poll worker said he could turn on the voice. The only issue was that the machine was at an open table. When he backed up, if he was looking my way, he could probably see how I was voting. I don't know how accessible it would have been for a totally blind person.
Eugene Coulter of Columbia writes: My experience today went smooth as silk. I had no problems whatsoever, however, I did notice that no one other than myself was offered the electronic Voting machine. When counting, if I’m the only one, how secret will my ballot be?
Wanda Matlock lives in New Madrid County and writes: I am a visually impaired person and was thrilled when the law was passed that accessible voting machines had to be available to us for casting our ballot privately and independently for federal elections. I have been disappointed many times when I went to use the accessible voting machine to cast my ballot. The voting machine is always at my polling place like I expect it to be, but it is never accessible for me to use. Several times the machine was not even set up or even plugged into the wall outlet. At other times, if the machine was working, the person did not have the keypad or headphones for me. At other times the person in charge of the machine just did not know how to operate it.
I have spoken to my county clerk about this matter many times. Before our last presidential election, I, along with a sighted member of my Missouri Council of the Blind affiliate, was invited to visit the courthouse and do a mock vote with an accessible voting machine. Of course, it worked perfectly. But during the election, I went to my polling place to vote. The machine was not plugged into the outlet. The gentleman could not get the machine to work. After about 10 to 15 minutes, the gentleman who was supposed to be overseeing the machine called the county clerk, and I was given 2 options: I could let someone else mark my ballot or I could wait until the county clerk brought another machine to my polling place, which would have taken 30 to 40 minutes at the least. I ended up asking my sister-in-law to mark my ballot for me. I was not going to wait another 30 to 40 minutes for another machine to be brought to my polling place because I feel like I would just be wasting my time.
I have spoken to a county commissioner about this issue and have called my state representative’s office in Jefferson City about this matter. I feel very frustrated and know that there are many people with a disability that feel this way also.
Melissa Kane of Jefferson City writes: I have voted often throughout my life. I was so excited when I heard that I was going to have the opportunity to vote privately and independently for the first time. This has rarely gone as I expected. In about 2014 I arrived at my polling place, in Cole County, Missouri, around 6 PM. An acquaintance had agreed to drive me to the polls. When I arrived, the poll workers explained to me that they did not have the accessible machine available, as they only ever had one person use it and so they had already sent it back to the courthouse. I had 2 poll workers assist me, one Democrat and one Republican. I had no way to verify my vote. I explained to the poll workers that the machine should always be available and let them know that I would be voting regularly.
In November of 2018, I was going to be gone on Election Day and decided to vote absentee. Our county clerk offers absentee voting in person at his office for a few weeks prior to Election Day. I decided to go to the Cole County clerk's office the Saturday prior to Election Day. I was informed that they did not have the accessible machine available because they had already sent it to the polling location. My husband completed my ballot for me. Again, I did not have a private voting experience.
In March of 2020, I arrived at my Cole County polling location just before 7 AM. It was a federal election, and I greatly anticipated voting in the presidential primary privately and independently. Well, I was informed that they had not set the accessible machine up yet. I explained that it was a federal election and that by law they were required to have it up. I sat down with my husband to complete my ballot. After my husband had already marked my ballot, one of the poll workers offered to set up the machine. I declined since I had to be at work by 7:30, and my husband had already marked my ballot. I called the county clerk and explained my experience. He apologized and said he would call out there and make sure that the machine was set up.
On April 6 and August 3 of 2021, in Cole County, I voted in 2 elections that had only local issues. On neither of these occasions was an accessible machine set up. The poll workers were apologetic. However, our county clerk does not feel that it is cost effective to set the machines up except when he is required to by HAVA. He totally disregards the Americans with Disabilities Act.
It is wonderful being able to vote on an accessible machine when it goes smoothly, but it is rarely smooth. The machines are only available during federal elections and not even always then. When they are available, it is obvious that the poll workers have received minimal training on setting them up and getting the ballot loaded. The machines are always set up on an open table off to the side but facing so that anybody behind me can easily see how I am voting. The ballot is a different size from the regular ballots and, since I am the only person who uses the accessible machine at my polling location, I do not have a private ballot.
I have advocated with our state legislature since at least 2013 to get equal access to the ballot with no success. I have had 2 meetings with the Secretary of State’s office, in 2018 and 2020, with no results. The last time they indicated that the Americans with Disabilities Act only applied to the physical spaces of the polling place, not the equipment in the polling place. Advocacy with the county clerk has also met with resistance. Our Jefferson City chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri has met with the Cole County Clerk and he has basically said that it is too expensive to set the machines up during non-federal elections. The only concession that he has made is having an accessible machine available at his office prior to the election. In addition to the issues with the voting machines, my polling location uses a tablet to sign in on, and it is completely inaccessible.
Chip Hailey of Jasper County writes: As I walked into my polling precinct 8 or 9 years ago thinking I would be able to use the accessible voting machine for the first time to cast my ballot, I was quickly disappointed when I was told that the equipment was still in the box sitting on the floor underneath the table. The polling official assured me that it wouldn't take long to get it set up for me to use.
After the machine was set up, I remained excited, still thinking I would be able to cast my vote privately and independently. However, much to my growing disappointment, the machine failed to function properly, and I wasn't able to cast my ballot using the machine. My wife had to assist me in filling out my ballot.
Over the next few years, I continued to remain excited thinking that this could be the year that I would be able to cast my ballot privately and independently, but to my frustration and disappointment, the polling official still couldn't get the machine to work properly. So I again had to call upon my wife to assist me with my balloting.
As I left my polling precinct that day, I was so terribly frustrated that I decided to contact the Secretary of State's office, my county clerk's office, the County Board of Elections, the Joplin Globe, and one of the local TV stations explaining my frustration. I was told that most blind and visually impaired people don't use the machines, and that is why many of the polling precincts don't bother with setting up the equipment.
Each time I exited my polling precinct, I really never felt like I had voted. I felt more like my wife got to vote twice, once for herself, and once for me. Furthermore, as much as I love and trust my wife, I really had no way of knowing whether she actually voted as I had instructed her. There was one time when I asked her to vote for a certain candidate and she responded, "Are you kidding?" Still, I believe she marked down the candidate of my choice, or at least I hope she did.
Then there was the time when the polling official couldn't get the equipment to work properly, so after about 45 minutes, he said he would have to call one of the technicians but that it might take an hourand-a-half before he could get there. I just couldn't wait around that long, so as I got up to leave, feeling totally exasperated, the polling official asked if he could assist me with my voting, to which I quickly responded in a not so kind manner, "no thanks." I'm sure this person was trustworthy, but how could I be absolutely certain, not knowing him from Adam. Over the next 7 or 8 years, if it wasn't one thing or another, the equipment still failed to work as it should, and the polling officials had no answer to the problem but did express their apology.
A couple of years ago I was able to go through the entire selection process on the voting machine, but when I pressed the big red star in the middle of the keypad, my ballot failed to print, and again, the polling official wasn't able to get the printer to work. I was told that the machines are so antiquated and often times get damaged in transit that it's no wonder they don't work as they should. I even reached out to my county clerk offering to test out the machines before Election Day to make certain they were working properly, but no one from that office ever took me up on my sincere and totally genuine offer.
I next invited my county clerk to bring a couple of the machines over to where I worked, The Joplin Independent Living Center, to have people who are blind and visually impaired and other individuals with a print disability stop by and try out the machines, and that seemed to work quite well. But again, the polling officials at my polling precinct could never seem to get the machine to work on Election Day. It wasn't until November 2020 that I was able to cast my ballot privately and independently for the very first time. I was so excited that I wanted to pump my fist up in the air and do a little jig. But my polling precinct is at an Episcopal church, and there must have been more than a hundred people inside waiting to vote. Still, I left my polling precinct that day with my head held high, and I felt as though my vote really did mean something and that it did get counted just as I had always dreamed that it would.
My concern is whether next time the equipment will work properly or whether I will have to relive over some of my past experiences. I'm also very concerned for others in the blind community who have shared similar experiences and have never enjoyed the thrill of voting privately and independently. For the blind community, not being able to use the accessible voting equipment may quickly become a disincentive to get out to vote. For many of them, the question is why they should go through the trouble of acquiring transportation, and even in some cases paying for that transportation to and from their polling precincts, only to arrive to find out the accessible voting equipment isn't working properly. The same can also be said for finding someone to assist them in and out of their polling precinct after they have arrived, again paying for a service that does not work out.
Those of us in the blind community feel as though our vote does mean something and that it does count, and that's why I along with so many others in the blind community, have advocated vigorously for years to ensure that blind people have the same rights as their sighted peers when it comes to voting.