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Election Security and Accessibility: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Election security has been prioritized over almost every other voting reform since the 2016 presidential election. A security-focused response was certainly warranted, but the changes to the way Americans participate in elections must not come at the expense of free, unassisted access to voting by those with disabilities. Policymakers can advance security and access priorities simultaneously.

Last week, the United States Election Assistance Commission hosted the Disability, Accessibility, and Security forum. Panelists discussed everything from election equipment standards to mobile voting – but one theme rose above all: security and accessibility are not and should not be diametrically opposed priorities.

Instead, the panelists urged election administrators and policymakers to consider security and accessibility in tandem.

Here are the major takeaways from the event:

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The Help America Vote Act gives voters with disabilities the right to vote in the same manner as everyone else. The move to paper ballots threatens that right.1

While holding a pen and hand-marking a paper ballot may not seem like an issue for able-bodied voters, it may not be possible for voters with visual or physical impairments. PEW Research Center highlighted the difficulties faced by voters with disabilities in their 2019 story about Ruth Sager.

When Ruth Sager arrived at her polling location in the 2018 midterm election, she was informed that the location’s electronic voting machine was not functioning, and that she would have to cast her vote on a paper ballot. However, Ruth Sager – a visually impaired voter – could not fill out a paper ballot on her own.

Instead, a poll worker read the choices aloud to her, often mispronouncing names and skipping party affiliations. Sager then said her vote aloud to the poll worker, hoping that it was cast accurately with no way of verifying the ballot herself.

Sager’s experience is not unique but is commonplace for blind voters across the country – increasingly so as paper-ballots take hold. Failing to provide voters with disabilities an opportunity to vote in a private and independent manner is a violation of federal law.

Panelist Diane Golden pointed out that election security and accessibility experts can go back and forth about specifics all day, but ultimately the right of voters with disabilities to cast their vote privately is a “legal mandate” – one that paper-ballots alone cannot meet.

Segregating voters with disabilities is bad for security and accessibility.

Paper ballots will continue to proliferate as the primary voting option. However, there are other options policymakers and administrators can consider in addition to paper ballots that are more inclusive.

For instance, Ballot Marking Devices (BMD’s), would allow a voter with a disability to participate unassisted while still incorporating a paper backup into the process. BMD’s provide a digital interface on which voters mark their choices, which are then printed out on a voter-verifiable paper ballot. The ballot is then fed into a scanner to tally the vote2. BMD’s provide an interface on which voters with disabilities can cast their vote privately, an attribute purely paper ballots lack.

In a February New York Times article, The Associated Press reported that BMDs were never intended to be used as the primary voting method, and instead should be reserved only for voters who cannot vote via a hand-marked paper ballot. There are two things wrong with the idea that BMDs should be reserved for votes with disabilities:

Segregating disabled voters is a violation of civil rights.

Deputy Executive Director of Blindness Initiatives at the National Federation of the Blind Lou Ann Blake compared the expectation that voters with disabilities will use distinct voting methods to a violation of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. Blake explained that the United States decided that separate was not equal in the 50s and 60s, and yet many security experts still argue that voters with disabilities should use voting equipment that is separated from able-bodied voters’ methods.

Segregating voting methods by disability is not only a violation of privacy, but of civil rights, Blake claims. Echoing this idea, Doug Chapin, the event’s moderator and director of the University of Minnesota’s Election Administration Program, argued that the major question we need to ask ourselves when implementing new voting equipment for votes with disabilities is “How much segregation are we willing to tolerate?”

Reserving BMDs for voters with disabilities increases security risks.

Computer science professor Juan Gilbert critiqued the idea that BMDs should only be used by voters who cannot use paper ballots. He explained that while reserving BMDs for voters with disabilities is intended to increase security, it actually does the opposite.

An essential aspect of BMDs is that they print out a paper record that voters can verify for accuracy. However, if only voters with disabilities (and, more so, folks who might be less capable of visually verifying their paper record) use BMDs, the machine becomes far more vulnerable to undetected interference.

Gilbert explains that the more able-bodied voters who use the machine, the higher the likelihood that interference will be caught and, thus, the lower the likelihood that a hacker will attempt to interfere with the results.

Security and accessibility go hand in hand.

Discussions over hand-marked paper ballots tend to insinuate that accessibility is a detriment to security. Panelists at the EAC event disagreed. Not only is it the legal obligation of election administrators to make their elections accessible, but the work of expanding security and expanding accessibility are complementary.

The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) does not just recommend that new voting equipment be made accessible, it requires it. HAVA states that to receive a federal grant for election equipment and research, the voting equipment must be “fully accessible for individuals with disabilities, including the blind and visually impaired.”

Beyond legal requirements mandating accessibility, there are countless ways that election administrators can account for accessibility while implementing security upgrades. For instance, upgrading election software to Windows 10 is not only a significant security improvement, but also a win for accessibility.

Additionally, Senior Cybersecurity Advisor at the Department of Homeland Security Matt Masterson pointed out that when jurisdictions upgrade their websites due to security concerns, they should take advantage of the upgrade opportunity to expand accessibility options as well. This logic could be applied across the board: widespread changes in election administration associated with building security are an opportunity for administrators to improve accessibility at every step of the elections process.

1 Full quote by Lou Ann Blake: “HAVA enabled us to vote privately and independently for the first time, as first-class citizens. And with the movement to paper ballots, that first-class citizenship is now threatened.”
2 BMD’s which produce a QR code for counting the vote have come under criticism for being vulnerable to hacking. BPC recommends the use of BMD’s which produce a voter verifiable paper record that is used for counting and auditing.

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