Virgil Stinnett is looking forward to voting at home, saving him a trip through Honolulu to get to a polling location before the Aug. 8 primary. 

For blind voters like Stinnett, who value their independence, a new option to cast an electronic ballot with assistive technology means greater freedom.

But getting the ballot came with a few headaches. 

“The point to this whole thing is, they aren’t advertising how to do it simply,” Stinnett said.

Virgil Stinnet, President of the National Federation of the blind, at his home in Honolulu Wednesday, July 29, 2020. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
Virgil Stinnett has been trying to gather information on how voters can access electronic ballots. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2020

Stinnett recalled getting the runaround from the state and local government in early July. It’s just one example of barriers that voters from marginalized communities like the disabled and homeless face each election.

For the most part, advocates see the new all-mail voting system as a positive step toward making voting easier. But there are still a few areas that could be improved, like educating the disabled community on how to vote in this new system.

Electronic Voting Helps The Blind

For the first time in state history, any voter with a disability or special need can request an electronic ballot. That was a provision of Act 136, Hawaii’s mail voting law. In prior elections, only overseas military had that kind of access.

The ballot is emailed as an HTML file that voters can access with assistive technology. Voters must also sign a privacy waiver.

The ballots need to be printed and signed before they’re returned. Hawaii, along with 19 other states, allows those ballots to be returned by email, but Hawaii is one of the few that also grants that privilege to disabled voters, who can scan their ballots and email them.

Requesting an E-ballot

The ballots can also be printed and faxed, mailed or dropped off at a deposit location.

The Hawaii law also allows voters who either did not receive their ballot or need a new one to request an electronic ballot five days before election day.

Stinnett, who serves as president of the Hawaii chapter for the National Federation of the Blind, says he’s grateful that elections officials and the Legislature had the forethought to give voters that kind of access with electronic ballots, which the state calls alternate format ballots.

It’s also important for blind voters like Stinnett who don’t like to rely on someone else to fill out their ballots. Nationally, 85% of blind voters preferred going to polling places because they could vote on their own, a survey from the National Federation of the Blind found.

“My wife and I, we don’t depend on sighted folks to print our ballots,” Stinnett said, adding that there’s no way for him to make sure someone would mark the candidates he chose.

Stinnett said there are between 12,000 and 13,000 blind individuals in Hawaii, but probably more who are legally blind, or those who can see somewhat but still have poor vision even with corrective lenses.

He and others are also raising concerns over running into trouble getting access to those ballots. Hawaii elections chief Scott Nago said it’s up to the counties to get these ballots to voters, but there isn’t a uniform process for doing that.

That’s confused some voters, like Stinnett, who said he’s been trying for the last couple of weeks to gather simple instructions for other blind voters to request a ballot. 

First he tried the state, which told him to call the county. Once he called the county, he had to work his way through a few offices before getting to the right number. It mirrored a situation earlier this year when he asked for a sample ballot and was told to find it on the elections office website.

“Do you know how difficult it is for a blind person to use a website?” Stinnett said.

He said he’s disappointed he didn’t see the process laid out clearly in local news media or by the Office of Elections. 

Better Voter Education Needed

Lydia Hardie is among those concerned that the elections office hasn’t done enough to educate voters with disabilities on the new voting system. Hardie, who handles voting access for the Hawaii Disability Rights Center, said she’s heard from voters who raised concerns over how to vote privately and get access to those electronic ballots.

“I’d like to see concerns raised to have been given a more thorough response,” Hardie said.

Nago said the elections office needs to do a better job of reaching out to voters.

“Based on that comment, we’ll have to do a better job on educating the community,” Nago said, adding that means letting them know what is available.

State of Hawaii Chief Elections Officer Scott Nago at hearing on Mail in Ballot.
Hawaii Elections Officer Scott Nago wants to do a better job of reaching out to voters with disabilities. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

The pandemic has been a challenge and changed the way the elections office does outreach, Anthony Akamine, a state voting services specialist, said during a July 27 panel discussion hosted by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Hawaii isn’t unique in trying to overcome barriers facing disabled voters or those who need assistance.

In 2018, the National Federation of the Blind won a lawsuit against Ohio over access to absentee ballots. In May, it won another case in Michigan, where the state rushed to implement a mail-voting system due to the pandemic.

And each year in Colorado, which is often heralded as the gold standard for voting by mail, some counties still fall short of complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

For Hardie, it comes down to elections officials and companies that design voting technology to be thoughtful of the struggles some voters face. 

She recalled a recent Zoom call with blind voters, including Stinnett, and a representative from a voting machine company, who said he was about to put a PowerPoint on the screen to show everyone.

“It’s those kinds of insensitivities,” Hardie said. “Who’s developing these systems? How much consideration did they give to it? You need to pretend you have this disability yourself.”

But she also says some advocates may have been too late in raising issues over voter access. Most people spent the better part of 2020 preoccupied with the coronavirus.

“Maybe folks weren’t being impacted in the beginning, but when it became reality and they were hit with these barriers, it was like ‘Geez, could we have spoken about this when it came to the Legislature?’”

Tina Burton, the city clerk of Rochester Hills, Michigan, said during the EAC panel that she would take a team to a voter’s home if they called her office and said they couldn’t access a ballot.

“We will go to the voter if they can’t get to us,” she said.

Both mail-voting systems and traditional in-person voting come with their own problems, said Michelle Bishop, an advocate at the National Disability Rights Network.

“There are many types of disabilities, and they all come with their own access needs,” Bishop said during the panel. “No two people with the same disability experience it the same way. … Really, we have an obligation to make sure every method we’re offering voters is as accessible as we can possibly make it.”

Reporting for this story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

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