Recently, the Freedom to Vote Act (S. 2747) was introduced in the Senate, which contains many similar provisions to previous federal voting rights bills, including a mandate for all voters to use a durable voter verified paper ballot. NDRN has and will continue to advocate against any paper ballot mandate applicable to all voters to prevent the disenfranchisement of voters with disabilities. In January 2021, twenty national disability organizations issued a joint statement expressing concerns over any federal paper ballot mandate and its impact on voters with print disabilities. In June 2021, thirty national disability organized released another statement of concern.
Much like its predecessor, the For the People Act, the Freedom to Vote Act contains numerous provisions we support that would expand access to the vote in the United States. The bill addresses onerous registration and vote by mail systems and limited voting hours across the country, while creating important protections for elections administrators. Further, the bill prohibits deceptive practices and prevents voter intimidation, prohibits voter caging, and restores federal voting rights to disenfranchised Americans.
Importantly, the Freedom to Vote Act also includes specific provisions to protect the rights of voters with disabilities. The legislation would improve access to ballot drop boxes, promote curbside and remote voting, and invests in the research and development of accessible voting machines. Yet, the bill notably contains the same mandate as the For the People Act, which requires paper ballots to be used in both in-person and remote voting. Once again, this provision undermines the goals of the bill by restricting access for many voters with disabilities.
Any mandate of a paper-based voting system will inevitably harm voters with disabilities, and particularly those with print disabilities, as it would: 1.) end innovation in development of fully accessible voting systems by leveraging advancements in technology and cybersecurity; 2.) limit voters with disabilities’ federal right to privately and independently verify and cast their ballots, and; 3.) ultimately segregate voters with disabilities. It must be made abundantly clear that the ability to privately and independently hand mark, verify, and cast a paper ballot is impossible for many voters with print disabilities.
We urge Congress to amend the Freedom to Vote Act to exclude voters covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) from mandated use of a voter verified paper ballot for both in-person and remote voting. Until fully accessible paper ballot voting systems have been developed and made ready for widespread use, accessible in-person and vote-by-mail options must be offered to ensure all voters in America can receive, mark, verify, and cast a private and independent ballot. While we recognize the important steps that the Freedom to Vote Act represents to remove significant barriers to voting for people with disabilities and all Americans, this legislation will disenfranchise an inexcusable number of voters with disabilities, unless the unintended consequences of the paper ballot mandate are addressed.
Before paper based voting systems become the law of the land, we must ensure that we can protect the right of every voter to a private and independent ballot.
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The National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) is the nonprofit membership organization for the federally mandated Protection and Advocacy (P&A) Systems and the Client Assistance Programs (CAP) for individuals with disabilities. Collectively, the Network is the largest provider of legally based advocacy services to people with disabilities in the United States.