How tech is slowly working to make elections more accessible
For people with disabilities, tasks like casting a ballot or running for office come with added challenges.
Abrar Al-HeetiVideo producer / CNET
Abrar Al-Heeti is a video host and producer for CNET, with an interest in internet trends, entertainment, pop culture and digital accessibility. Before joining the video team, she was a writer for CNET's culture team. She graduated with bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Though Illinois is home, she now loves San Francisco -- steep inclines and all.
ExpertiseAbrar has spent her career at CNET breaking down the latest trends on TikTok, Twitter and Instagram, while also reporting on diversity and inclusion initiatives in Hollywood and Silicon Valley.Credentials
Named a Tech Media Trailblazer by the Consumer Technology Association in 2019, a winner of SPJ NorCal's Excellence in Journalism Awards in 2022 and has twice been a finalist in the LA Press Club's National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.
Two years ago, during the midterm elections, Lucy Greco went online to learn more about what would be on her ballot. Greco, a
accessibility evangelist at the University of California, Berkeley, who is blind, was unable to use many of the sites because they contained links with bad or no text, making them inaccessible.
Watch this: Tech accessibility is lagging. Here's why that needs to change
A report on polling place accessibility in the 2012 elections found that 30 percent of people with disabilities had trouble voting at their polling places, compared with 8 percent of individuals without disabilities. Some of the most common reasons were not being able to read or see ballot content and trouble understanding or using voting equipment.
Removing these widespread roadblocks can help more people with disabilities cast a vote, which could have a significant impact on elections turnout. According to a Rutgers report on the 2016 elections, "If people with disabilities voted at the same rate as people without disabilities who have the same demographic characteristics, there would be about 2.2 million more voters." Rebecca Cokley, director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress, says having more votes come from the disability community would lead elected officials to take accessibility issues more seriously.
"Simply traveling to meet a candidate, participate in a rally or reach a polling location can be an obstacle for many," Duckworth said. "For those who don't own a vehicle and live in an area served by mass transit, many transit systems are not fully accessible and ride share opportunities are oftentimes few and far between. These obstacles can partially be overcome with virtual participation, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic."
"We are continually striving to improve the accessibility and usability of our site, and are committed to providing a web experience that meets the needs of as many visitors as possible," Biden campaign spokesperson Rosemary Boeglin said. "We will continue to work with experts like Perkins Access to ensure inclusivity and enhance accessibility."
The Trump campaign didn't respond to a request for comment.
"Accessibility is something that's overlooked, even at the highest level, and that's something we need to really address," said Ablr CEO John Samuel. "The lack of understanding and awareness extends from not having people with disabilities in leadership roles and helping make those policies."
Though electronic and information technology from federal departments or agencies is required to be accessible by law, compliance is very poor, said Sarah Blahovec, civic engagement and voting rights organizer at the National Council on Independent Living. That's largely because compliance is essentially enforced by consumer complaints, she said, and because of a lack of accountability processes at higher levels.
"The burden shouldn't have to be on people with disabilities [to report issues]," Blahovec said. "It really shouldn't have to be on us to get people to follow the law."
"Going after legislation is a negative," Coelho said. "Enforcement is what we need."
Tech to improve access
People with disabilities who want to run for office also face a slew of added challenges. For instance, they may have a hard time going from door to door to speak with voters. Thankfully, the COVID-19 pandemic has spawned virtual canvassing tools like I C Voters, which allows canvassers to connect with voters online. Blahovec notes these technologies will continue to be useful for people with disabilities even after the pandemic is over.
I C Voters helps officials with disabilities more easily engage with their constituency, says Neal Carter, founder of political consulting firm Nu View Consulting. It brings them one step closer to having equal opportunities and access leading up to an election.
"We already realize that the world is not adapted for our disabled bodies. Then if we're running for office, that's even more exemplified," Carter said. "Every technological thing that you could think of that is a stopgap for a disabled person regularly is even more amplified if they're running for office."
Thankfully, more tech-based solutions are slowly rolling out. The Brink Election Guide is a mobile app built with accessible technology that allows voters to access information such as election deadlines and when, where and how to vote by mail or in person. It's available for download on the App Store and Google Play.
These kinds of digital tools can be helpful for voters like Samuel, the Ablr CEO, who's blind. He doesn't read braille, and during the 2018 elections, a poll worker had to go into the polling booth with him and fill out his ballot. Not having the independence to do so himself and trusting a stranger to cast his vote was unsettling, he said. That's why it's critical to come up with a universal design that'll allow everyone to easily participate in political processes, Samuel noted.
"It really comes down to actually including people in the design, whether that be in technology or in our policies," Samuel said. "We need people with disabilities at the table."
For people in all parts of the political process, that increase in awareness, inclusion and understanding will be what helps make future elections more accessible for everyone.
"We've fought these battles in every single industry that there is and every single aspect of life there is," Greco said. "You get really tired of having to fight the battles."