'A Basic Right Of Citizenship': Blind Voters Still Waiting For NC's Plan For Safe, Private Ballots

Oct 8, 2020
Originally published on October 14, 2020 5:20 pm

As the nation approaches Nov. 3, more and more absentee vote requests are coming in. But for voters who or blind or have vision impairment, they face a choice of having a safe vote or a private vote. An alternative still hasn’t been rolled out in North Carolina with early voting starting next week.

In prior elections, Becky Davidson, who is blind, voted in person. One of her biggest challenges was how to get to the polls. This year she’s worried that social distancing won’t help protect her or other voters, especially with the markers on the floor that she isn’t able to see.

She’s figuring out how to cast her ballot -- does she vote in person or does she ask someone to fill it out, giving up her private vote? Right now, those are her only choices.

"Being able to go vote privately and independently is something that I value quite a bit," Davidson said. "Sadly, doing absentee voting, privately and independently is still not possible here in North Carolina or in a number of states."

If a voter is blind or has vision impairments and votes in person, they’re able to have assistance via a voting machine that verbally guides them through the ballot — providing both accessibility and privacy.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26.8% of adults in North Carolina have some type of disability.

Advocacy groups and plaintiffs recently sued the state — and won — arguing the current absentee voting system was not accessible to those with vision impairment. Voters who need assistance are now able to access Democracy Live, an online portal traditionally used for deployed voters and those overseas.

The ballot is online and audio-based, and allows for voters to mark their ballots without assistance.

Mecklenburg County Board of Elections director Michael Dickerson says counties are waiting to unveil that ballot.

“We’re waiting to see what the state is going to have for us,” Dickerson said. “If it’s like the overseas ballot where somebody can vote sort of online with their computer. So once the state gives directions, and understands how that system can be converted for someone with a vision impairment, then we’ll be able to have all 100 counties in the state follow that rule.”

Corye Dunn works with Disability Rights North Carolina, a nonprofit that was part of the lawsuit against the state.

“Our clients simply wanted to be able to use the process that other voters use to cast an absentee ballot without having to compromise the privacy of that ballot,” Dunn said.

With early voting starting soon, Becky Davidson is still not sure how she will vote.

“If the system is up and online and running and available in time for the election, I might test it just because I can," she said. "And rather than go to the polls, because I think it's pretty intriguing, and I think it has a lot of potential.”

Raleigh resident Ricky Scott has been blind for nearly his whole life and has voted both absentee by-mail and in person.

Voting is important to him, and he’s cautiously optimistic that the online voting option will give blind voters like him the privacy they need.

“What it boils down to is equal treatment with respect to the ballot. That's a basic right of citizenship,” Scott said. “To ask us, to accept anything less, is inherently discriminatory, and says that we are second-class citizens.”

Alexandra Watts joined WFAE as a Report for America Corps Member in 2020 in the unique partnership with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library using radio and Wikipedia to fill news deserts.

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