Anyone surprised by a recent study that found voters with disabilities still face significant barriers trying to vote in federal elections? That nearly 40 percent of those surveyed said they face physical barriers to the polling place and 45 percent said they had problems with the voting machines?
The cynic in me is only surprised that the numbers aren’t higher.
I believe it’s my duty as an American to participate in elections, but I gave up going to polling places because of the poll attendants who freaked out when I asked to have the (old-fashioned lever-type) voting machine lowered. They panicked when they realized no one had been trained to do it, or the person trained wasn’t there, or the gadget used to adjust the booth was missing. Then they got all nervous when they noticed the long line of people forming behind me. I left embarrassed and convinced that perhaps my patriotic duty was to prevent the drama next Election Day by not showing up.
Luckily, I had some carefree voting experiences during the years when my then toddler accompanied me to the polling place. Once the curtain was closed in the voting booth, I would lift her onto my lap and direct her to the levers she should pull. The most fun was pulling the final lever that cast the votes and opened the curtain with a dramatic flourish. She loved that!
As she grew older and more independent, she’d fight with me as to which lever to pull. The voters waiting in line patiently outside the booth could hear my precocious 5-year-old fighting with me over which candidate to choose for county executive or U.S. senator.
Later she took part in a Kid’s Voting program that let schoolchildren in our community cast their own votes in the same races their parents voted in. She would go to her part of the polling place and I would go to mine and return to the drama of the too-high voting booth.
Once she went off to college, I started voting in the comfort of my home, even though I realized that my absentee ballot would not be counted until after Election Day. Somehow, that makes my voting seem less important.
I miss the sense of community that comes with voting in a high school gym or fire hall, and feeling part of the democratic process – both lost when casting an absentee ballot.
But polling places – like so many other places in our country – too often roll out the “Not Welcome” mat, which leaves too many of us out in the cold. Luckily, some people are recognizing the need for improvement, or at the very least obeying the law.
Towns and counties have applied for grants to make their polling places more accessible. And at Michigan State University, researchers have developed the “voting joystick,” which is designed to “eventually enable people with dexterity impairments, senior citizens and others to exercise their right to cast ballots independently,” according to MSU Today.
The voting joystick is comparable to the joystick used to control motorized wheelchairs. “Some 125,000 people in the United States use a joystick-controlled wheelchair and nearly 7 million have difficulty grasping objects, suggesting a growing need for better accessible voting devices,” said one of the researchers.