Nevada County elections office teams up with FREED to make ballot box accessible
Voting is a relatively easy task for some, but people with a disability can face significant barriers to participation in the democratic process.
Blind voters may not be able to read a standard ballot, deaf voters may have difficulty communicating with poll workers, and people with physical disabilities may have trouble accessing their polling place at all.
That’s why officials with the Nevada County Elections Office went to the FREED Center for Independent Living Wednesday afternoon. In collaboration with FREED’s staff and volunteers, they were able to set up an early-voting site for people with disabilities and anyone else.
“Voting is a fundamental civil right for U.S. citizens, and it’s very important that everyone has a voice in that process,” said Ana Acton, executive director with the FREED Center for Independent Living.
“If we’re talking about access for people with disabilities to be able to vote independent and privately, this is a really important way for us to engage our community,” Acton said.
Able-bodied voters may take for granted the privacy of the ballot box, Acton said, but people with disabilities who rely on others sometimes have a different experience. Even when voting by mail from the privacy of their own homes, they may need to rely on a caregiver or loved one to fill in their ballot for them.
That could, in theory, influence their vote.
“Electronic voting systems create accessibility, and for some people it’s the first time that they’ve been able to vote independently and privately without the assistance of anyone else — which is something that you and I may take for granted,” Acton said.
In terms of physical access to the ballot box, there are a number of issues to consider — like handicap accessible parking, wheelchair friendly ramps, and transportation. Once you get to the polling place, there can be other issues.
“Sometimes a person with a disability like mine, they won’t know how to start the voting machine or it won’t be working,” said Justin Harford.
He’s a blind person, an advocate for the disabled, and employee of the FREED Center.
“We’ve got two officials from the Elections Office, including the registrar himself, here to make sure everything’s working right,” Harford said. “So there’s none of those barriers.”
Harford believes that Americans with disabilities are an untapped voting block.
“We had about 43 percent turnout right now,” Harford said. “If we got that up to 90 percent we would be on a level with the Latino vote and the African American vote.”
Harford praised the efforts of the Nevada County Elections office, as well as Registrar of Voters Greg Diaz, who was on site to supervise the early voting operations at the FREED Center.
“It really shows that the registrar is behind it, and that he really supports us,” Harford said. “We’re really grateful that he’s responded so openly to this.”
Diaz said that back in 2007, the county worked closely with representatives from the FREED center to identify and acquire a voting machine that could meet the needs of members of our community who have a disability.
“Based on feedback from FREED we were able to acquire what I think is the best electronic machine out there for the disabled voter,” Diaz said, referring to voting machines produced by Hart Intercivic.
“They’re very comfortable, we have earphones on them,” Diaz said.
The county’s voting machines are also compatible with a “puff and sip” device, which allows voters with limited use of their hands to vote using their mouths.
“There are some disabled voters that don’t really have the motor ability to turn the wheel,” Diaz said. “There’s probably a more technical term for it, but we call it a puff and sip.
“It goes into your mouth, so their breathing can actually activate the machine and capture their vote.”
Diaz said they plan to continue working with FREED to provide early voting services for disabled residents of Nevada County in the future. They’re expecting a high level of turnout for the next presidential general election cycle in 2016.
“We’re going to have two new candidates,” Diaz said. “No incumbent will be running in 2016, so we’ll be working with FREED to expand opportunities.”
That may include “mobile voting,” in which poll workers would set up early voting sites for three to five days during the run-up to the election.
Polling places open at 7 a.m., Tuesday. They will remain open until 8 p.m. Vote by mail ballots can be turned in at any polling place, or at the county elections office, by 8 p.m. that day.
More information is available through the county’s interactive Polling Place and Elected Representative Lookup, available on the county’s website.
To contact Staff Writer Dave Brooksher, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4230.
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