Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The ACLU is suing the city over its refusal to make online voter registration accessible to the blind.
The recent move toward online voter registration has been one small step for elections, maybe one slightly-less-than-medium step for democracy. The ability to register from the convenience of one’s home (provided that you have a computer) as opposed to commuting to and waiting in a DMV office makes a somewhat irksome activity less tedious. It also saves money for state and local officials on the election administration end, among many other benefits. Currently 31 states along with Washington, D.C., offer this service.
But if blind voters in your state aren’t able to participate because the websites are not accessible to them, then your state is doing online voter registration wrong. This is what the ACLU found in New York, where the state’s Board of Elections and Department of Motor Vehicles websites don’t operate with software that allows blind people to use them. Which is why the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the state agencies on June 9, for their failures to accommodate the disabled.
One of the plaintiffs, Eva Eason, tried updating her voter file after moving to New York in 2014 and quickly learned that she’d be able to do it online. Eason, who is blind, went to the Center for Independence of the Disabled (CIDNY) for assistance with filling out the form, but doing this required sharing her private information with someone she didn’t know. Still, even after the registration form was completed, she had no way of verifying for herself that it was filled out correctly.
The whole experience was “dehumanizing, degrading, and intrusive," said Eason in a press statement. The ACLU is suing on behalf of Eason and another blind voter, the CIDNY, and the National Federation of the Blind, which has thousands of members in New York facing similar challenges.
The blind typically access websites and forms by using a screen-reader program called Job Access With Speech (JAWS), which transmits web content via audio files or onto Braille display pads. There are accessibility guidelines for the web that have been in place since 2008 for developers to make pages compatible with JAWS and similar screen readers. The ACLU itself published a report in 2015 that explained the unique challenges posed for blind voters, and provided instructions on how to make voter websites accessible for the disabled. According to the complaint, the ACLU sent the report and additional materials to New York’s elections board so they could update their own site, but nothing was done. Given the blockbuster presidential campaign season currently underway, this is the wrong time for slacking on the voter registration front.
“We’ve told the state where the worst barriers are,” said ACLU attorney Susan Mizner in a press statement. “It can easily fix the problems, but has refused to do so.”
The lawsuit asks a U.S. District Court judge to force the state to replace its online voter registration system with one that is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act in time for local elections on September 15 and the upcoming general presidential election on November 8.
Online voting services fundamentally are supposed to be about the democratization of the elections process—truly making it more universally accessible. When online voter registration is designed without prioritizing that feature, it undermines democracy in more ways than one.