By Christine Hunsinger, President
Your vote counts. It even counts when you don’t vote. Remember that the vote you don’t cast is a vote for someone who you might not necessarily want to be in office. If you think that your vote doesn’t matter, statistics show that a couple of votes per district could have made a difference in the Pennsylvania result in 2016. Voting is a Civic Responsibility and we should be exercising it.
We all have the right to vote. Cases brought against states for inaccessible voting have been brought using either ADA regulations or Civil Rights arguments. If we don’t exercise our right to vote “accessibly”, Pennsylvania might think that we don’t need an accessible voting solution.
You can accomplish many of the tasks I mention below online at VotesPA.com. (Editor’s note: The writer provided some direct links in the next section which have been shortened for the reader’s convenience.)
Remember that you can’t vote unless you are registered to vote. You can call your County Elections Office to check your registration status, but they are rather overwhelmed at present. You might do better using online tools. You can check your registration to see if it needs to be updated at tinyurl.com/penn-check/. You can register to vote at tinyurl.com/penn-register/ using the accessible online form. If you prefer, download and print the registration application, have someone help you fill it out, and return it to the county. Whichever way you complete it, the form requires you to verify your identity by providing the number on your PennDOT-issued I.D. or driver’s license. You must be registered by October 19, 2020 to vote on November 3.
Fortunately, many of us will have two accessible voting solutions for the November 3rd Presidential Election. One method is in-person voting. All counties must have at least one accessible ballot marking device at each polling place for in-person voting. Poll workers are supposed to have training on how to start the accessibility features for anyone who asks for them. Even people who are not print-impaired can use these ballot marking devices. In some jurisdictions like Philadelphia, all voters use electronic ballot marking devices which print and eventually count paper ballots. This in-person method may be a solution for you if you feel comfortable venturing out to a polling place by the time the election takes place.
You will need to prepare for two possible issues on Election Day at the polls. First, because many poll workers might feel uncomfortable working in an area with more exposure to COVID-19 than usual, there may not be enough poll workers to man all polling places in a county. Counties may send out notices to voters about polling place changes when we get closer to Election Day. You may want to stay in touch with the local news or be sure to review your mail to learn about any polling place changes. Second, due to limited training, workers may not know how to use the accessible equipment which is supposed to be at the polling place. They may tell you that you must use assistance to vote. It is up to you to decide if you want to make them call the election office for instructions on the accessible equipment or file a complaint because you cannot vote accessibly, independently, verifiably, and privately. We will have more information about filing complaints closer to Election Day. If they tell you that you need to have assistance and you didn’t bring a friend, you might want to ask that poll workers from both parties assist you so that they will check on each other.
The second Accessible Voting solution is the newly purchased Democracy Live Vote by Mail ballot purchased by Pennsylvania. Although Pennsylvania has signed a contract with this company, the instructions for using this solution are not yet complete. What we do know is that to use this system, you will need access to three things: an email account, a computer, Smart Phone, or tablet, and a printer. The Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth sent a letter to Election Officials in each county regarding the process. Here is most of the text from the message that went out.
“Voters with disabilities will now have the ability to mark their absentee or mail-in ballot remotely to provide a legally required accessible means to cast their ballot. As a result, the Department is working with Democracy Live to provide eligible voters an opportunity to vote using an accessible ballot, beginning with the 2020 Presidential Election. A remote ballot, along with required affirmations, must be provided to the voter using a new Remote Ballot Marking System at the voter’s request.
Soon, we will be in touch with additional details and training opportunities regarding this solution to clearly understand how the process will work. At the present time, these are the processes we are envisioning for the solution:
• Voters will request a remote ballot in addition to their regular absentee or mail-in ballot application.
• County election office personnel will upload the appropriate ballot(s) to Democracy Live’s online portal.
• Democracy Live will convert the ballot to an accessible ballot and host it on a statewide portal.
• County election personnel will review and approve the accessible ballot for posting.
Once County election office personnel receive the eligible voter’s request, the following steps will occur:
• County election personnel will mail a packet of accessible voting materials to the voter. The department is procuring these materials for distribution to counties.
• County election personnel will send an email to the voter with a link to the portal for the accessible ballot.
• The Department will work with counties to provide the required voter registration data to Democracy Live.
• Voters will access the portal to self-authenticate and mark the ballot, print the ballot, and return the ballot to the county election office. Instructions on how to vote the remote ballot will be provided to the eligible voter when he/she accesses the ballot.
More information will be distributed to counties soon, which will include training and guidance pertaining to the accessible ballot solution.”
It is not known yet if the county instruction packages will be in braille or large print, or if you can choose. Hopefully, the instructions can also be electronic. People will get two envelopes to return with the printed ballot. You need two envelopes because the ballot goes into one envelope, and you must sign that inner ballot envelope to verify that you are the person making the voting choices.
If Democracy Live is not a good solution for you, you may have to use the regular mail-in ballot with someone helping you fill in the ovals for your selections. If you don’t want to make the request online, or if you don’t want to fill out the paper form and mail it in, you could actually go to the Election Office with a friend to help with the paperwork, request the mail-in ballot, and fill it out all at the same time. Some areas may not have their ballots for marking until late in September because of court challenges, so check with your Election office if you want to do everything all at one time. If you do choose to do it by mail or online, the county will send the paper ballot with the form to be completed by a person providing voter assistance. The deadline for requesting a mail-in Ballot is October 27, which is awfully close to the November 3 election due date.
With all the uproar about post office delivery you may not want to mail your ballot. Also, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania may soon have something to say about the voting process and deadlines. At present, the ballots must be postmarked by November 3, but a better solution if you are getting close to the deadline may be to take your ballot to the County Election Office. You cannot give it to a friend. You must have your Identification with you to verify that this is your ballot and only your ballot. Pennsylvania has a law against Ballot Harvesting which means no person can collect ballots from others to be dropped off at the county Election Office. As of now, mail-in ballots cannot be dropped off at polling locations. People who asked for Mail-in Ballots for both elections earlier this year should be able to add the request for an accessible ballot to their record. We hope to have more information about the accessible mail-in solution sooner rather than later, so stay tuned.
There are links on the VotesPA.com website to apply for a mail-in ballot and then track your application. You can also be notified when your ballot is received by the election office and staged for counting. We could have concerns that the signature on file in the voter records doesn’t match the signature on the envelope we send back when we vote by mail. Some jurisdictions have been more exact about this issue than others.
I hope that this information has been helpful, and I hope that even more of us vote than in the past because we have better, even if not the best, accessibility solutions. We’ll keep working on them.