Disability rights groups say focus on election security hurting voter accessibility

Disability rights advocates on Thursday urged election officials to focus on accessibility alongside security for U.S. elections and pushed for more technological solutions that would allow all Americans to cast secure votes.

“For people with disabilities, our votes aren’t secure now,” Kelly Buckland, the executive director of the National Council for Independent Living, said at an election accessibility summit hosted by the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) on Thursday. “I believe we could make them more secure through technology that is available today.”

After Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections — which according to U.S. intelligence agencies and former special counsel Robert Mueller involved sweeping disinformation efforts on social media and targeting of vulnerabilities in voter registration systems — election security has become a major topic of debate on the national stage.

Concerns around the use of technology in elections were also heightened this month following the use of a new vote tabulation app by the Iowa Democratic Party during the Iowa caucuses. The app malfunctioned due to a “coding issue,” leading to chaos around the final vote tally. 

After these incidents, election security experts have advocated for using more paper ballots to ensure no individual or group can hack the votes, and to ensure no glitch can occur. 

However, disability groups on Thursday noted that moving to just paper could make it difficult to vote for blind or visually impaired people, those who have difficulty leaving their homes, or those for whom English is not their first language. 

Lou Ann Blake, the deputy executive director of Blindness Initiatives at the National Federation of the Blind, said Thursday that moving toward paper ballots brings up civil rights issues for those with disabilities.

“Security and accessibility, it’s not a question of either/or, we have to have both, because really it’s an issue of civil rights,” Blake said at the EAC summit. “With the movement to paper ballots, that status of first-class citizenship is now threatened … paper ballots are not accessible, you cannot make them accessible.”

Diane Golden, the project director of the nonprofit Illinois Assistive Technology Program, argued that moving completely away from technological resources for voting would mean election officials may not be able to provide accessibility for disabled voters.

“If the only way you can deliver security is through a marked paper ballot, then you have to acknowledge it has to be done a different way for accessibility,” Golden said. “If security people continue to say any digital interface is insecure, then you have essentially said you cannot provide accessibility.”

EAC Chairwoman Christy McCormick noted during the summit that 14.3 million Americans with disabilities voted during the 2018 midterm elections, a number she said would “certainly increase” during the upcoming 2020 presidential election. 

“We must ensure any technological voting solutions offer universal access and do not infringe upon a voter’s privacy,” McCormick said. “People with disabilities have the right to a seamless integrated and welcoming voting process at the polls.”

The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has served as one of the primary federal agencies involved in working with state and local election officials to ensure security. 

Matt Masterson, the senior cybersecurity advisor at CISA and a former EAC commissioner, highlighted the link between accessibility to elections and the security of the vote. 

“I could not agree more that it’s not a debate between the two, that accessibility is security,” Masterson said Thursday. “Privacy and independence is a security question as much as it is an accessibility question, if you can’t vote privately and independently, it is not a secure process.”

Multiple cities and states have taken steps to move towards more accessible elections through the use of technology. 

One example is Los Angeles County, which has spent the last decade building a new digital voting system known as Voting Solutions for All People (VSAP) system, which will be used for the first time during the upcoming 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. 

According to VSAP’s website, a major principle of design built into the new system is accessibility for all, including for voters who are not proficient in English.

However, according to a CNN report this week, cybersecurity experts have found major flaws in the system, which involves the use of digital technology in voting but includes a paper backup for voters to double check how their votes were cast. 

Golden pointed to this report and others around the LA County system as indicative of the need for the U.S. to decide whether election security is more important than accessibility for the disabled. 

“As a country, we have got to decide, is it or is it not, and if it isn’t, then we have got to actually commit to doing the right thing, and making it both accessible and secure, not secure first and then accessible as we can make it, as long as it’s secure,” Golden said.

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