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Florida Advocates Encourage People With Disabilities To Vote In The 2020 Election

Pictured here is a close-up view of a man's hands holding a rectangular controller for the ImageCast. An accessible voting machine people with disabilities can use to cast their ballot independently at the polls. On the controller's left side, arrows are facing to the left and right. In the middle of the controller is a big X button. On the controller's right side are up and down arrows. A wire droops down from the controller and out of view.
Robbie Gaffney
In Leon County, voters with disabilities can choose to use an accessible voting machine called the ImageCast. It allows people to listen to their ballot and navigate it with a controller that has tactile buttons.

Disability Rights Advocates urge Floridians with disabilities to vote in this general election. According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2016 figures, 8.6% of Floridians under 65 have a disability. That demographic has a lower turnout than voters without disabilities.

Doug Hall was 21 when he first voted in 1968. He's fully blind. When he arrived at his polling location in New York, a Republican and a Democrat he didn't know, had to accompany him into a voting booth.

"The Democrat, if that's who was doing the voting, would read to me the choices, and I would just tell that person the choice I wanted. So the person then would flick that correct switch to cast my vote for that particular thing. At the same time, the other person there was to make sure that the person that did the voting did what I told them to do," Hall says.

But telling another person how he'd like to vote wasn't ideal.

"Voting is supposed to be secret, but basically what that meant is I was telling two other people how I was voting, and I really didn't like that," Hall says.

Soon, people with disabilities could bring someone they knew to help them vote. Florida Council of the Blind's President Sheila Young was 18 years old when she first voted in 1972.

"I was thrilled. I was 18, and it was my first year to be able to vote. So, of course, all 18-year-olds are just, 'let's go, let's do it,'" Young says.

Young, who is fully blind, brought her mother to help her fill out the ballot.

"I trusted my mom. So, I know she picked who I wanted her to pick whether she agreed with me or not," Young says.

In the early 2000s, accessible voting machines started becoming more common. When Young first encountered them:

"I just sat there in awe of the fact that technology was able to create this machine and create this ballot that we could actually sit down and fill out. So, I was just thrilled," Young says.

There are now three different types of accessible voting machines in Florida. They allow people with disabilities to listen to their ballot and, with a gamepad, select who they'd like to vote for in an election. But despite this accommodation, Disability Rights Florida's Olivia Babis says voters with disabilities tend to vote less than those without disabilities.

"So right now, there is a significant voter gap, and that means the percentage of people with disabilities who turn out to vote in elections versus the general population and that gap tends to range from like four to seven percent with some states being a little lower. Some can be a little higher. But that's kind of the national average of that," Babis says.

In 2016, The federal government looked at 177 polling locations during early in-person voting and Election Day. 60% of those places had barriers to people with disabilities. Babis explains what some of those are:

"Inadequate parking, doors that people couldn't get into, obstacles in the hallway, poll workers not knowing how to use accessible voting machines and setting those up, not knowing how to work with a person with a disability," Babis says.

Last fall, The Miami Lighthouse for the Blind examined primary candidates' election websites and found none of them were fully accessible to blind voters. Florida Council of the Blind's James Kracht says not having that information causes some to feel disenfranchised:

"Many blind and visually impaired people don't feel competent to vote," Kracht says.

Kracht says that's because they don't feel qualified and are worried about their level of education. There's also the issue of transportation.

"They can't get in the car and drive. They maybe are too afraid or don't have the necessary skills to travel independently to the polling place. They don't have somebody to help them get there. So, I think transportation is a huge obstacle to voting as well," Kracht says.

Five Florida counties are testing a new system that lets people fill out their ballot on the computer. Young says it's a leap forward for people with disabilities who don't have reliable transportation.

"This is a way that anyone can make a choice of how they're going to vote and the way that they want to vote in their own safe zone," Young says.

It also makes vote by mail more accessible to those with disabilities.

Access the Vote Florida is hosting an online accessibility summit to encourage people with disabilities to vote and educate the public on the challenges voters with disabilities face. The conference begins at 9 am on October 6 on Access the Vote Florida's Facebook page.

Robbie Gaffney graduated from Florida State University with degrees in Digital Media Production and Creative Writing. Before working at WFSU, they recorded FSU’s basketball and baseball games for Seminole Productions as well as interned for the PBS Station in Largo, Florida. Robbie loves playing video games such as Shadow of the Colossus, Animal Crossing, and Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles. Their other hobbies include sleeping and watching anime.