S.1, the For the People Act

The disability community is deeply committed to ensuring access to electoral participation for all, and we recognize the critical need for the For the People Act “to expand Americans’ access to the ballot box.”[1]
 

S.1 addresses a number of voting barriers to make voting more accessible to all American voters. Among its many provisions, it aims to improve voter registration systems and vote-by-mail systems, restore federal voting rights to disenfranchised Americans, prohibit voter intimidation and caging, and prevent the discriminatory purging of voter rolls. Additionally, S.1 includes some provisions to improve voter access for voters with disabilities. It gives voters with disabilities the right to use absentee voting procedures to register to vote and cast their ballot; requires states to designate a single office to establish processes for people with disabilities to register to vote and request an absentee ballot; mandates the accessibility of ballot dropboxes; and establishes procedures to securely transmit blank absentee ballots by mail and electronically.

Concerns about S.1’s Paper Ballot Mandate

 

While the provisions in the For the People Act that will expand voter access are critical, and its overall impact will transform voter participation across America, maximum impact can only be achieved if its provisions uphold the right to an accessible ballot for all Americans. Many disability rights advocates are concerned about S.1 Section 1502(a)(2), the Paper Ballot Mandate, which requires that all voting systems use “an individual, durable, voter-verified paper ballot.” This requirement applies to all types of voting, both in-person voting and remote voting (vote by mail, absentee, and other types of voting outside a polling place or vote center).

In January 2021, 20 national disability rights organizations issued a joint statement expressing their concern with the paper ballot mandate.[2] A paper ballot mandate would not allow for complete privacy and independence for voters with disabilities. It prohibits fully digital voting which allows voters to read, mark, verify, and return their ballot completely electronically. Voters who need accessible equipment would be required to use Ballot-Marking Devices (BMDs), which require voters to verify and return a paper ballot. Almost none of the BMDs currently used are fully accessible for voters with disabilities, particularly those with blindness, low vision, or motor limitations who cannot independently visually verify or manually cast a printed paper ballot. This paper ballot mandate will cause a decrease in remote voting accessibility in a number of jurisdictions where voters with disabilities have been given the option to vote from home privately and independently using electronic ballot marking, verification, and return. In addition, a paper ballot mandate will end all voting system innovation and advancement to produce a fully accessible voting system that provides enhanced security without relying on paper.

As currently written, S.1 attempts to ensure BMDs provide accessible verification and casting of a paper ballot for in-person voting but those requirements do not take effect until the 2024 election, while the paper mandate takes effect in 2022. This  will reduce access for voters with disabilities in the short-term with no guarantee that the market will produce fully accessible BMDs for in-person voting by 2024. The paper mandate also will foster segregation of voters with disabilities by only requiring one accessible voting system per polling place. H.R.1 was amended to change this requirement to “a sufficient number” of accessible voting systems per polling place.

Remote voting is inaccessible when a ballot, delivered electronically, must be printed on paper and must be sent through the mail and cannot be sent over the Internet. The option to vote remotely is necessary for some voters with disabilities and improves access for voters to cast their ballot because they do not have to travel to a polling place, which can be a barrier for some voters with disabilities. Unfortunately, remote voting is inaccessible when a voter-verified paper ballot is mandatory, even though accessibility is a legal right. To make remote voting fully accessible, some jurisdictions are using systems that allow voters with disabilities and overseas and military voters to vote securely and electronically without the requirement of printing a paper ballot. S.1’s paper ballot mandate will prohibit this option, and eliminate innovation towards other secure and accessible voting systems that do not require a voter-verified paper ballot.

Proposed Changes to S.1

 

A number of disability rights organizations called for changes to be included in H.R.1 to improve these concerns for voters with disabilities. With the exception of an amendment to change the language on one accessible voting system per polling place to a “sufficient number” and an amendment to authorize research and development money for accessible systems, these changes were not incorporated into H.R.1 prior to its passage. As the focus shifts to the Senate, we will continue our advocacy and we hope to see all of our recommended changes for H.R.1 incorporated into the Senate S.1 bill. The following organizations support these changes: American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), American Council of the Blind (ACB), The Arc of the United States, Association of Assistive Technology Act Programs (ATAP), Association of University Centers on Disabilities (AUCD), Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, Disability Rights Advocates (DRA), National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities (NACDD), National Council on Independent Living (NCIL), National Disability Rights Network (NDRN), National Federation of the Blind (NFB), Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, Self Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE), United Spinal, Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and World Institute on Disability (WID).

The above members of the National Coalition on Accessible Voting urge Congress to incorporate several critical changes to the For the People Act that will ensure it advances voting rights and accessibility for all voters. We propose:

  • A “carve out” from the paper ballot mandate that will exempt voters covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA), to ensure these particular voter groups retain their legal right to cast a private and independent ballot. Under these changes, the requirement for marking, printing, verifying and casting a paper ballot would not apply to voters with disabilities and military and overseas voters. These two constituencies require the flexibility of using digital access to ensure full and timely access.
     

  • A provision that the paper ballot mandate for all voters must be reauthorized by Congress after six years.
     

  • The inclusion of remote, accessible ballot marking systems in the definition of a voting system, which will bring remote voting systems into the HAVA-mandated requirements for published standards, independent compliance testing by federally accredited test labs, and the national certification of systems deemed compliant with published standards.
     

  • Elimination of the “one accessible machine per polling place” requirement that has resulted in segregated voting for voters with disabilities, replacing it with a requirement for accessible voting systems to be sufficient in number to be the primary method of voting for in-person voting. The US Access Board shall be directed to issue guidance regarding proper implementation of a sufficient number of accessible voting systems.
     

  • Funding for Section 247 (Study and Report on Accessible Voting Options) in the amount of $10 million for in-person voting grants and $10 million for remote voting grants, plus authorization of additional funding to states for the purchase of new fully accessible voting equipment. Funding for the purchase of new voting systems by the states would ensure that progress made under the research and development and pilot projects would be implemented by elections administrators.

 
[1] https://www.merkley.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/For%20the%20People%20Bill%20Text.pdf

[2] https://www.ndrn.org/resource/disability-community-fears-paper-ballot-mandate-will-hurt-voters-with-disabilities/