The Journal Gazette
Sunday, March 20, 2022 1:00 am


Visually impaired need better options to access fundamental right

Rita Kersh

Did you vote in the November 2020 presidential election? Was it a bit concerning to go to a potentially crowded polling place on Election Day, in light of COVID-19?

More than 60% of Hoosiers balanced these concerns by voting early or by voting by mail if they were eligible. They didn't want to choose between their vote and their health.

I certainly was among those facing that choice. In October 2020, I was receiving cancer treatment and was instructed by my doctors to avoid going out into crowded places unnecessarily to avoid the risk of infection.

I would have loved to vote by mail privately and independently, like other Indiana absentee voters do.

That's not what happened.

I'm blind and have hearing loss and, under Indiana law, I was not permitted to vote absentee by myself. Indiana law requires people like me to make an appointment with a “traveling board” of elections officials to fill out a paper ballot for me.

This is inconvenient at best, and disenfranchising at worst. I have a blind friend who tried to make an appointment with a traveling board in November 2020. The traveling board never came and she never got to cast her vote.

A better option would be for Indiana to provide a ballot I could download and fill out on my computer.

I use technology that reads documents out to me, and translates them into Braille, to correspond by email, use social media, shop online and more. Almost half the states offer software that enables blind voters to fill out their ballots this way; it's the only way for blind voters to mark their absentee ballots privately and independently.

Indiana has not implemented this yet.

So I took the risk and voted early in person. This wasn't great, either.

I have tried to use the “accessible” voting machine at my polling location, and the audio quality is horrible. With my hearing loss, I cannot understand the candidate names and do not feel comfortable or confident using that machine.

Later that month, I came down with COVID anyway and had to be hospitalized. I don't know if I caught COVID while voting, but I wouldn't have to wonder if I could have marked my absentee ballot by myself at home.

Voting in elections, whether they be local, state or national, is a right and a privilege for all Americans. And that right and privilege must extend to citizens who are blind, visually impaired or have print disabilities.

My experience wasn't unique. There are about 160,000 people in Indiana who live with visual impairments. We strive for the right to vote privately and independently, not only at polling locations, but with absentee ballots.

Recently, we have taken this fight to the courts. Together with the American Council of the Blind of Indiana, other blind voters like me, with the assistance of our attorneys (Disability Rights Advocates and Indiana Disability Rights), I asked a court to help me vote absentee the way others do.

A federal judge recently ordered that for the May 2022 primary election, Indiana cannot require that absentee voters with disabilities use the traveling board.

Now it's just an option, rather than being mandatory, and people can ask anyone (except an employer or union official) to help them fill out a paper absentee ballot.

Electronic absentee ballots are what we really need.

Indiana is promising to create accessible PDF electronic absentee ballots by May, which don't work nearly as well as the software systems other states use. (Other states have tried PDF ballots, but never for long.)

While I don't have any faith that these will be ready in time or work as well as paper ballots do for sighted voters, I have decided to try it. Voting privately, independently and safely is precious enough to me to take the risk.

Meanwhile, our lawsuit continues. We hope the courts will agree with us that the traveling board should be made permanently optional, and that voters with disabilities should have voting-specific software that is used around the country.

I hope our next election is safe, private and independent for everyone.

Rita Kersh of Bedford is president of the American Council of the Blind of Indiana.

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