Arizona’s disabled community faces unique challenges on way to ballot box
Stephen and Mary Beth Wagner have always found themselves moving to a new place just before an election, making it difficult for them to get registered in time to vote.
But that’s hardly the only barrier the couple have faced: They are both visually impaired, and navigating Arizona’s voter registration system online and getting to an Arizona Motor Vehicle Division office to finalize getting a voter identification card is no simple task.
“There are hurdles and obstacles,” Stephen told the Arizona Mirror. “Some you have to step over, some you have to climb over and some you have to step around.”
While the websites are “moderately accessible” using screen reading software, some documents that must be filled out can’t be read by the software. And then there’s the fact that neither of them can drive to an MVD office.
The couple eventually found out about an organization called Voteriders, which partners with Uber. Voteriders helped them get a ride to the MVD and sent a volunteer with them to help them finalize getting their voter ID.
“It felt good to vote again (in August) because I haven’t voted in approximately 6 years,” Stephen said.
Stephen and Mary Beth’s story isn’t unique. Advocates and election officials are currently working to try to ensure that voters in similar situations have their voices heard this coming November in a state that has some of the strictest voter ID laws in the country.
The Southwest Institute for Families and Children is a Phoenix-based nonprofit that specializes in working with families and individuals with disabilities. George Garcia, its executive director, said one of their main priorities right now is ensuring that many in the community are educated on their voting rights.
Garcia’s group has been hosting Zoom meetings and meeting with voters in places like group homes to help them understand all their options and helping them register to vote.
“People have different types of disabilities that may have to need things accessible (to them),” Garcia said.
One group that Garcia said that the Southwest Institute for Families and Children is particularly focused on helping educate is those with intellectual disabilities.
“We work with them a lot, just to let them know that they even have the right to vote,” Garcia said, adding that many believe they don’t think they have the right to vote. “They are more than capable of making their own decisions.”
Garcia and his coworkers are also striving to ensure that the caregivers, family members and voters themselves are all educated on their voting rights so they can advocate for themselves, if needed. And he is now having to make sure that they’re all aware of the new voting landscape that Arizonans currently reside in.
For those with disabilities, voting by mail is the easiest way to vote. It is also the only way to get a braille ballot or a large print ballot, though a law signed by Gov. Doug Ducey earlier this year purges voters from the early voting list if a voter fails to vote by mail in at least one primary or general election where a municipal, statewide, legislative or federal race was on the ballot over four years. The vast majority of Arizonans and nearly all voters with disabilities vote by mail.
“Voting by mail is probably the most easiest and accessible means of voting,” Garcia said, adding that their education efforts now include telling voters that they may have been removed from the early voting lists.
Another issue for voters with disabilities is Arizona’s strict voter ID law which requires a number of documents including proof of citizenship to obtain a voter ID.
“Getting an ID can be really challenging, it can be time consuming, it can be expensive and it can keep lots of eligible voters from casting ballots in lots of circumstances,” Lauren Kunis, executive director of Voteriders said to the Mirror. “I think confusion cannot be understated when it comes to Arizona’s voter ID law.”
Voteriders has been partnering with disability-centered organizations to help Arizona voters get the proper documentation such as birth certificates in order to get their voter IDs and get them free rides to the MVD so voters can get access to the polls or a mail-in ballot come November.
“People don’t walk around with vital documents like that,” Kunis said, adding that voter ID laws end up disproportionately impacting the disabled community nationwide.
But there are options for those in the community to get even more assistance, even straight from the election officials themselves.
Special election boards
During this month’s primary election, the Maricopa County Elections Department issued 17 braille ballots, 276 large print ballots and 102 people were visited by the special election board, according to Maricopa County Elections Department spokeswoman Megan Gilbertson.
The special election board is a part of the department that is made up of bipartisan teams who go to places like nursing homes, hospitals and rehab centers to help people there vote. They can work with the staff to ensure that a voter has the proper identification and can bring braille or large print ballots to ensure a voter has the right ballot to vote on as well.
The department does outreach to over 3,000 facilities, not including the rehabilitation centers and hospitals that they already provide services to, Gilbertson said. The special elections board can even bring ballots to a voter up until 7 p.m. on Election Day.
For those who want to vote at a polling site on Election Day, there are accessible options, such as voting equipment that will read the contests out, enlarge the font or change the background color and will print out the ballot for the voter. During the primary, 223 voters used these accessible voting devices.
There is also a curbside voting system where two bipartisan poll workers will come out to a voter’s car, verify the voter’s identity and print them a ballot which is then placed in a secrecy envelope. The voter then fills out the ballot in their vehicle and it is tabulated at the polling location.
“They’ve been very supportive and meeting with us to develop voter education information,” Garcia said of Maricopa County, adding “How do we educate Recorders on, ‘What does accessibility mean?’”
Garcia said he worries about more rural counties and still has concerns about the accessibility of things like websites used to register to vote for those with disabilities.
“You do find people with disabilities lacking with access to technology,” he said.
Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs’ office acknowledged that some communities face challenges with access to voting rights.
“All eligible Arizonans should have access to register to vote and exercise their right to vote,” the Secretary of State’s Office said in a statement responding to questions posed by the Mirror. “The Secretary of State’s Office recognizes, however, that some individuals and communities face disproportionate challenges to exercising their right to vote.
Currently, Arizona’s law does not allow for many of the innovative technologies and options that could assist voters with disabilities. Legal change is needed to improve voting access, and the Secretary will continue to support legislation to improve voting access for Arizonans.”
Hobbs’ office directed the Mirror to a large print voter registration form that is available online which can be filled out and dropped off at any county recorder’s office and encouraged voters to reach out to their office to request one if need be.
The Maricopa County Elections Department also encouraged voters to reach out to their office if they require assistance. You can call 602-506-1511 or email SEB@risc.maricopa.gov.
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.