By Kathie Ragsdale
Cheryl Killam was excited as she drove to the polls in the spring of 1984, in part because her name was on the ballot as a proposed delegate to the upcoming state Constitutional Convention.
But when she arrived at her polling place in Hampstead, New Hampshire, the polio survivor found that snow covered the handicapped ramp she would need to navigate her wheelchair into the building. She struggled to maneuver to the top of the ramp, only to find that the door was locked. It took a stranger’s help to get her inside.
The experience spurred Killam to dedicate much of her life to advocating for disabled people and their right to vote. She spent six years, 2002 through 2008, as the accessibility specialist for the New Hampshire Governor’s Commission on Disability. She crisscrossed the state, assessing polling places and courthouses for their accessibility.
The effort to ensure that disabled individuals have equal opportunities to vote continues today, as organizations like the New Hampshire Disability Rights Center and others work with the Secretary of State’s office to effect change.
Despite continuing challenges, advocates agree that progress has been made.
The 1984 Constitutional Convention that Killam ended up attending passed an amendment, later ratified at the ballot box, to make all polling places in New Hampshire easily accessible for disabled and elderly voters. It is similar to the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act passed at the federal level the same year to make polling places physically accessible for federal elections.
Then came the Americans with Disabilities Act, which became law in 1990, prohibiting discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life. This was followed by the Help America Vote Act, signed into law in 2002, which includes provisions to make polling places accessible to those with disabilities, and requiring that at least one voting system at each polling location be available to those with disabilities.
Because of such measures, “In terms of wheelchair accessibility, they pretty much have nailed it,” Killam says of polling places.
But making facilities accessible and making the act of voting accessible are two different things, she notes.
For years, she says, blind voters would have ballots read to them by family members or moderators and have to trust that those readers were directing them to check the right box. Then came a cumbersome phone-and-FAX system, under which a user would vote by punching a number on a keypad and having the vote read back to him by phone before the finalized ballot was sent to a FAX device and entered into the ballot machine.
Stephanie Patrick, executive director of the Disability Rights Center of New Hampshire, says technology is improving, and points to New Hampshire’s recent introduction of the one4all voting system, which allows people who are blind to mark their votes electronically, either using a touch screen or having the ballot read over headphones and using a keyboard to make selections.
The system is available at all polling places and can be used by anyone, whether disabled or not.
“We strongly encourage all people, not only those with disabilities, to use it,” says Patrick. “It’s easier and quicker to use than a paper ballot… The more people ask to use the machine, the more it’s going to be available for people with disabilities.”
But more work needs to be done to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to vote, she says.
“I think generally people with disabilities face some challenges in voting privately and independently every year,” Patrick says.
She says additional training may be needed so that “election officials, including moderators and workers on election day, are really committed to doing the best they can to serve people with disabilities and recognize that this involves flexibility and awareness of the rights of people with disabilities.”
“Progress has been made but it’s not a perfect system,” she adds. “There’s always room to be better. The Secretary of State’s office seems very willing to hear our concerns and try to address them, but they have limited resources.”
Even so seemingly minor a thing as parking can be a barrier to voting, notes Killam, a resident of Newton, New Hampshire.
“My small town only has two accessible parking spaces so if they’re occupied I either wait or come back later,” she says.
The COVID-19 pandemic is further complicating efforts.
“People may not be willing or able to stand out in long lines and therefore might not take the time to sign up for an absentee ballot,” Killam says.
Patrick agrees, saying, “It’s important for people to pay attention and really think through what they want to do this fall with the COVID concerns. We’re going to be really proactive in helping people with disabilities in thinking through what their options are in advance. I believe the Secretary of State is anticipating being more actively involved.”
“We’re really committed to making sure people with disabilities, no matter what political party, are still able to go out and vote,” she adds.