Julian F. Wheeler, who volunteers as an election observer in Pierce County, values the way officials continue to make elections more accessible. Wheeler, an Afghanistan Operation Enduring Freedom veteran, was injured and has a disability that has left him with some of these improvements.
What may be a simple change to some – a curb cut at a bus stop, for example – can make all the difference to a person with a disability who wants to vote.
State and federal laws dating back to the Voting Act of 1965 required efforts to improve accessibility, according to the Washington State Department.
These efforts include new technologies, such as the barrier-free voting unit, which is required by law by every district auditor.
Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson said the unit, available 18 days prior to each election, will allow blind or visually impaired people to access their ballots via audio and use a touch paddle with Braille.
“Another tactic for visually impaired voters is that the screen can enlarge the size of the ballot and have contrast controls,” she said. “People with other disabilities, such as degenerative muscle disease, who cannot hold a pen or use a keyboard, can move their cursor with their breath.”
The voting unit has a remote video interpreter for the deaf.
“We can get an American sign language interpreter in 30 seconds,” said Anderson. “It’s an iPad on wheels, and it’s valuable because an auditor can’t always have a personal interpreter on hand.”
In Vancouver, Washington, election officer Cathie Garber said the Clark County Auditor’s Office had produced an audio polling brochure for the blind or visually impaired. “We used to put the brochures on CDs and then when we built our website people could access them and listen to MP4 files.”
Garber said the auditing bureau was working with a disability advisory committee on better ways of providing information. The recordings are cheap, Garber said, noting that it costs $ 200 to $ 600 for an audio specialist to record.
Accessibility must also be taken into account when searching for the district’s 22 ballot boxes.
“This can be important for people with disabilities who don’t have to get out to vote,” said Garber.
She noted that the Clark County office was working on strategically locating mailboxes.
“The City of Vancouver installed a device on one street so that we could build a platform so that people traveling both ways on the street could use the mailbox.
“We want to give all voters the opportunity to vote,” she added.
The state’s vote-by-mail program improves accessibility for many. “With a mailbox, that means you have a ballot box right in front of your house,” she said.
The improved accessibility means a lot to Wheeler, the veteran who returned from Afghanistan with a medical disability. “That’s what I fought for, for more opportunities for everyone.”