Story at a glance
- An audit found a majority of states’ online absentee voter applications are difficult for people with disabilities to complete.
- “One critical problem will stop a voter in their tracks,” says an expert.
An audit of mail-in ballot applications for the upcoming November presidential election found that 43 states’ online applications had some level of inaccessibility to Americans with disabilities, making it more difficult or even impossible for people with disabilities to attain their absentee ballot.
The study was conducted by Deque Systems, an accessibility technology company. It comes ahead of a contentious election in which mail-in ballots will be a popular option among voters to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As part of the company’s initiative to seal the digital divide people with disabilities encounter when applying for vote-by-mail ballots, Deque looked at each state’s mandatory process residents must complete to vote absentee.
It found that 43 states' mail-in voting application forms were digitally inaccessible for some disabled voters, while five other states did not require an application for a mail-in ballot. Two states, Michigan and Massachusetts, offer an accessible application option to disabled residents.
Deque evaluated each application by using a combination of automated and manual testing and the software Adobe Acrobat to gauge how accessible state government absentee applications are, particularly how well they fit the PDF/UA standard criteria.
Completing the application to be approved to vote-by mail is a critical step in many states. Most processes occur on state government online platforms through a PDF document and must be compliant with requirements outlined in the American Disabilities Act.
If a voter cannot access the application to receive their mail-in ballot, they may not be able to vote. Preety Kumar, the chief executive officer of Deque Systems, cited widespread barriers to accessibility within most states’ mail-in voting applications.
Improving an application to be more digitally accessible includes installing tools that allow disabled citizens to read, complete and otherwise use these documents on devices like phones, laptops and tablets. Some of the most common features used for enhanced accessibility include screen readers for visually impaired individuals, captions, zoom functions and other simple layouts.
One specific problem encountered was trouble with screen reading software that doesn’t clearly convey portions of the application needed for completion.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 61 million U.S. adults live with a disability, amounting to 26 percent of the adult population. The majority of disabilities are related to mobility, but people with cognition and vision impairment make up a substantial portion of the population as well.
Another study by Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations found similar results, with approximately 38.3 million people living with disabilities being eligible voters, amounting to roughly 25 percent of the vote.
Modern elections hinge on single-digit percentage points, making a loss of one quarter incredibly significant.
“Voting is a right. It was an easy decision for us to offer these remediated PDFs as a free public service, hopefully making it easier for all to take advantage of mail-in voting options,” Kumar said.
Some states who worked with Deque to improve accessibility to their PDF mail-in voting applications include Maryland, Georgia, Rhode Island, Montana, Ohio, Missouri and Kentucky. Many other states still have exclusionary barriers to filling out absentee applications.
Kumar states that being aware of the problem is the first step to making all government resources more inclusive, and learning about the proper tools that exist to make mail-in voting more accessible.
She also notes that ignoring the user’s needs can have an adverse impact on voter turnout.
“One critical problem will stop a voter in their tracks.”
Digitally accessible mail-in voter applications can be found here.