Every two and four years respectively, we as Americans are repeatedly encouraged to go out and vote. While this topic of discussion can bring with it feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, for those of us in the blind and low vision community, this may be even more apparent, as being able to cast our vote may not be easy, and require more forethought than just showing up at the polls on ELECTION day.
You can find the audio version of this podcast here.
Transcribers note: During bad audio moments, the transcriptionist had to put ellipses where one would hear pauses rather than words, or where it was clear that while words were said, they could not be heard.
Luanne: You know, it doesn’t really matter what party affiliation you are or what organization you belong to. Voting is important to everyone and uh, is something we should all be able to…. to work together on.
Chris: This is the Penny Forward podcast, a show about blind people building bright futures one penny at a time. I’m Chris Peterson.
Liz: And I’m Liz Bottner.
Chris: We are blind people learning from each other how to be successful in our personal, professional, and financial lives.
Liz: Every two and four years respectively, we as Americans are repeatedly encouraged to go out and vote. While this topic of discussion can bring with it feelings of anxiety and uncertainty, for those of us in the blind and low vision community, this may be even more apparent, as being able to cast our vote may not be easy, and require more forethought than just showing up at the polls on ELECTION day. Today, we are talking with Clark Rachfal, Director of advocacy and governmental affairs of the American Council of the Blind, and Luanne Blake, Director of research programs of the National Federation of the Blind. They will share information related to accessible voting, what options those of us who are blind or low vision have when it comes to casting an accessible, independent ballot, as well as information related to the advocacy efforts that have taken place to ensure that we are able to do so.
A note to our listeners. This podcast episode was recorded over Wi-Fi. Any degradations in audio quality are a result of the quality of the Wi-Fi connection being used.
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Liz: Clark, Luanne, Thank you both for being here today.
Luanne: Thank you so much for having us.
Clark: And this is Clark. Happy to be here. Thank you so much.
Liz: Sure. Uh, tell us about yourselves, your blindness, and then your roll within your respective organizations.
Clark: Oh, well I feel honored to … to get to go …
with Luann. Um, so, Hi, Everyone. This is Clark Rachfal, I’m the Director of Advocacy and Governmental Affairs for the American Council of the Blind. It’s a roll that I’ve been in for over three years now. And I have a lot of fun in this roll because, on behalf of our nation wide membership, I get to be at the, the tip of the spear, as it were, for our federal legislative efforts, the work we do on regulations with the various departments and agencies of the federal government, as well as coordinating our legal advocacy efforts, uh, but then I get to do fun stuff like this. Come in and hang out here with Liz and Chris, and our, our corporate partners, the cross disability community, to move our advocacy issues forward, uh, by any means possible really. So, my first introduction to ACB was when I was working for Verizon Communications, and the American Council of the Blind, along with others, were advocating for this, this small piece of legislation called the Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, now referred to as the CVAA. That was my, my introduction to ACB as an advocacy organization and the work that they did. So it’s really exciting to be in this roll now. Um, my journey through blindness is probably not unlike many of our ACB members, or our, or, your listeners, Liz and Chris. Uh, I was diagnosed legally blind at the age of four, with what would then be determined to be Lebar’s congenital amaurosis. I didn’t know or understand that at the time. All I knew is that some of the best doctors in the world, from John Hopkins in Baltimore, and from the Washington’s Children’s hospital, I grew up in Annapolis Maryland, by the way, so that’s, that’s why I was able to go to all these amazing places. But they told me that I would be only able to see lights and shadows by the age of 13. So, fortunately, they were wrong by a matter of decades, but I did have to learn, and adapt, and use different skills taught to me by O and M instructors, and teachers of the visually impaired over the years, to maintain my academics, maintain my independence, and fortunately, be able to play an integral roll in advocacy of an organization like ACB here today.
Liz: Thank you for sharing. Uh, Luanne.
Luanne: Sure. Um, thanks, Liz. Um, my name is Luanne Blake, Director of research programs for the National Federation of the Blind, where I’ve worked for, it will be 17 years in uh, December. I, um, have been doing voting advocacy, uh, for the National Federation of the Blind for, uh, about 15 of those years, and, um, that includes working with election technology venders to ensure that their technology is accessible to blind and low vision voters, as well as other voters with print disabilities. We also work with elections officials to make sure that the entire process, from registration to voting is accessible, that voter information is available in alternate formats such as braille and large print. We also work with the protection and advocacy agencies that each state has, helping them to make sure that the process, elections process in their state is accessible for blind and low vision voters. I, um, have, uh, another form of retinal degenerative disease, uh, by Clark, but the form that I have is um, retinitis pigmentosa. And I actually was not diagnosed with that until I was in my early thirties. So I went through my primary and secondary education not knowing that I had this disease. I first started showing symptoms at age ten, when I couldn’t see the stars at night anymore. But, you know, I was able to read regular print, and I actually drove, (Chuckle.) Until my early thirties, and so, you know, it’s been a real journey. Learning how to do things, you know, non visually, how to travel with a cane, you know, just, how, how to, learning how to use a computer. Um, with Jaws. Uh, so, you know, it’s a, it’s been a journey, um, and I have to say, finding the National Federation of the Blind and being with other blind people, is certainly one of the things that’s really helped me in this transformation process. Seeing other blind people do what they want to do. Live the lives they want, as we say in the NFB. You know, having families. Having careers. So, that’s, that’s, you know, been a really important part of my journey.
Chris: So, talking about voting for blind people, historically, what did it look like to go in and vote as a blind person, and how have we gotten from there to where we are today?
Luanne: So prior to the passage of the Help America Vote act, which was in 2002, or 2001, voters, blind voters, voters with low vision, had to vote with assistance. So, you know, they weren’t able to privately and independently cast a ballot just like, you know, any other voter. So, with the election in 2000, the passage of the Help America Vote act, required that there would be at least one accessible voting system in every poling place for, for all federal elections, and so, that really changed the voting landscape for voters with print disabilities. So, so we now have, accessible ballot marking devices are what we typically find in polling places now. In recent years, more and more states are starting to offer an accessible way to vote by mail. So we have, you know, accessible voting, not only at the poling place, but also by mail. So it’s been a real transformation. Blind and low vision voters can now vote privately and independently. Whereas for many years, we could not.
Chris: Clark, you have anything to add?
Clark: Sure, and I would just like to point out, um, some other federal laws that impact, um, the accessibility of, uh, voting. So, Luanne gave a great overview of the Help America Vote Act, passed in 2002, um, but the, the Voting Rights act of 1965, that was the law that required voting juris dictions to allow assistance for a voter with disabilities to be able to vote. You still didn’t have your private, independent vote, but that’s the law that made it okay for someone to assist you. As long as it wasn’t your employer, or your union representative, that … that’s the law there. In 1973, you had the Rehabilitation act. And Section 504 of the rehab act says that no one can be excluded on the basis of disability from the participation, or access, to federally funded programs. And boards of elections, and states and local governments receive federal funding to be able to execute elections. Um, so because of the Rehab act in 1973, section 504, voters with disabilities cannot be denied their right to vote. Fast forward a little bit, … and the Americans with Disabilities Act, um, Title 2 of the ADA, says that state and local governments must provide equal access to people with disabilities to their programs and services. So, whether that’s voter registration, … online registration, or the voting process. Then, and obviously those protections were enhanced by, as Luanne said, the help America Vote act in 2002, which, that’s, that was the big game changer, right? That’s when folks got the, uh, the requirement for accessible ballot marking devices in voting locations, uh, your, your polling center, so that you could complete your vote privately, and independently. One more law that I’ll point out here, another federal law, is the National Voter Registration act, also referred to as Motor Voter act, from 1993, and this is the law that requires any government service, or any organization primarily serving people with disabilities, so, you would think about your vocational rehabilitation center. Um, think about your paratransit agency. Think about any of the private employment centers or vocational rehabilitation agencies near you. They are required to assist people with disabilities with voter registration. Uh, so, there’s a nice tapestry that guarantees, at the federal level, federal laws, passed by Congress, signed by presidents, that require assistance for people with disabilities to be able to accessibly register to vote, to either receive assistance, or, for in person voting, for have access to the accessible ballot marking device to be able to cast their vote, again, with assistance, or privately and independently, with that accessible ballot marking device, so you get to complete the entire voting process, as a person with a disability in the United States.
Liz: Along those lines, it is 2022. We now have those processes and options in place to be able to cast accessible independent ballots, but how did we get to where we are today? What was involved in the, whether it’s the local or the national advocacy efforts related to the blind and low vision community, in making sure that was possible? Clark, do you want to take that first?
Clark: Sure. And, in addition to the, the laws that I outlined there, uh, the American Council of the Blind has been involved at the, at the state level through our affiliates, and also at the national level, uh, throughout the entirety of the organization’s sixty-one-year existence. Um, so whether that’s working to pass legislation, uh, working with boards of election to implement policies, uh, a big part of it is people with disabilities getting out and voting. Having those members having people in the community, those boots on the ground, um, being that physical, visible presence. “I’m a person with a disability, I am a voter. This is my right, and this is why these protections are in place,” and then following through. The, you know, if the local voting juris diction does not have an accessible ballot marking device set up, or if there is no assistance for voter registration, you know, using your voice. Having those actual boots on the ground of voters with disabilities, exercising their right to vote, but also, when necessary, taking either administrative action, filing complaints with the department of justice, or filing lawsuits and pursuing legal action when a voting system is not accessible, to ensure our rights as citizens to be able to complete the voting process.
Luanne: Most advocacy for voting rights takes place at the state level. So, a lot of the advocacy efforts that both of our organizations undertake around voting take place at the state level. A really good example, that happened this year, happened in Illinois, where both the NFB of Illinois and the Illinois Council of the Blind, as well as some other advocacy organizations, um, Access Living being one, um, worked together. Um, to get legislation passed, to, uh, require that voters with print disabilities have an accessible way to mark an absentee ballot. So, these are the kind of advocacy efforts, um, that um, we uh, undertake. Also, in 2020, with Covid, many elections were moved to all vote by mail, uh, away from in person voting, because of Covid. And that’s when both the NFB and the um, ACB, worked through legal advocacy to force states to provide an accessible way to vote by mail. At the beginning of 2020, there was only a handful of states that had an accessible way to vote by mail. By the 2020 general election, almost half of states had an accessible way to vote by mail. So, it was a tremendous advocacy effort, um, both on the state level, and the national level, that has resulted in an accessible way to vote by mail for many, many blind voters. We still have a way to go, uh, there’s still too many states now, we won’t be uh, we won’t be happy until all states have an accessible way to vote by mail, or at least mark their absentee or by mail ballots. Um, of course, now, we’re also working to get an accessible way to return those ballots.
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Chris: “in the world that we live in today, in 2022, if someone were to vote by mail, or go into a polling place, what is their experience likely to be like? Clark?
Clark: When a voter is going to vote, here in 2022, and again, I, hopefully everyone has uh, made a plan to vote and they know what to expect, but depending on the state that you live in, the state or territory, as well as, in some cases, even the county that you live in, the voting experience may look different across the United States. Some juris dictions will require voters to show identification, you know, a photo identification, as they are checking in. You know, if your state has closed primaries, you’ll have to be registered to a political party, and if you’re not registered to a political party, you will not be able to take place in primary election, but for the general election, you have to be registered, you may have to show photo ID when you check in, uh, but then once you’re checked in, every voter with a disability has the right to vote in person, privately, and independently, on an accessible ballot marking device. That will include speech output, large print, being able to adjust the color contrast, you’ll likely be able to connect assistive technology, such as a refreshable braille display, so that you can complete your vote privately and independently. Voters could also ask for assistance. Whether that’s from someone that accompanies them to the poll, like a family member or a friend, if you ask for assistance at the polling location, there would likely be at least two people to assist you, you know, one from each of the major parties, to, you know, prevent any shenanigans, but then also, uh, they cannot be your employer, you cannot receive voting assistance from your employer, uh, or from your union representative. If you’re voting remote or absentee, again, this will look different around the country. So, many states now allow remote and absentee voting, or vote by mail, where a printed paper ballot is sent in the mail, you mark the ballot, and then you return it by mail, or return it to a drop box. Some juris dictions allow voters to receive their voter absentee ballot electronically, you complete it, uh, but then, you’re required to print it, add a wet, uh, or you know, ink signature, and then either mail the ballot, or place it in a ballot drop box. And then, yet again, there are other juris dictions out there that allow voters to vote remote and absentee entirely electronically, including receiving their ballot, completing it on the personal technology of their choosing, and, just uh, either attaching it to an E-mail, sending it as a fax, or clicking “submit” and having it returned to their local elections office through an online portal.
Chris: Luanne, do you have anything to add to that? And, so that you don’t end up repeating what Clark just said, ’cause I don’t imagine there’s a lot of controversy here, what in your mind should accessible voting look like? What would you like to see in an ideal world?
Luanne: Sure. Um, so, uh, the National Federation of the Blind has conducted a blind and low vision voters’ survey since the 2008 presidential election, um, and uh, we have our 2022 survey up now, so if you go to
you can find uh, links to the surveys on that page, and that survey, um, shows that um, unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for blind and low vision voters to encounter poll workers who don’t know the accessible, uh, voting system. Um, and the system is not set up when they arrive at the polling place, and they have to wait around while the poll workers figure out how to get the machine set up, and how to get it running, and our surveys have shown fairly consistently that this happens to about a third, a quarter to a third of the voters who completed our survey. So that’s really unfortunate. And it’s um, frustrating. Um, and in fact, um, there may be some evidence that that’s actually driving some blind and low vision voters to going back to voting with assistance rather than trying to vote on the accessible ballot marking device. So, you know, in a real world, in the perfect world, you know, when a blind voter shows up at the polling place, the ballot marking device should be set up and it should be running. The poll workers should know how it operates. They should know, they should understand the accessible features of the machine. So, if they need to explain them to the, to the voter, they can do that. Also ideally, what we find in many locations today is that the ballot marking device, the accessible system, is set aside for use only by voters with disabilities. And that’s one of the reasons why the poll workers are not well trained on the systems. Because they don’t feel a need to, to know how they work. They don’t feel a need to have them set up when the polls are open. Um, so in the, again, in the ideal world, all voters will be using the same voting system. The same accessible voting system. Which actually, you know, any voter can use the accessible voting machine, it’s just that they’re not encouraged to use it. Um, they don’t know that they are able to use it. And also, uh, to also talk about, um, vote by mail, an accessible way to vote by mail should be available in every state, every juris diction, an accessible way to return the ballot once you’ve marked it, you know, using an accessible system, using your own access technology to mark that ballot, we should also be able to return that ballot accessibly. Many blind voters don’t have printers. So that’s a barrier to using these systems. You should be able to return it electronically without having to print it out, um, and then, you know, it gets printed out at the election’s office. So, that’s my ideal.
Liz: Clark and Luanne, you’ve both touched on this previously, in your prior answers, uh, but, in addition to, Luanne, the survey you mentioned that voters can fill out related to their experiences, and Clark, you mentioned voters being able to file complaints if they experience difficulty in voting, is there anything else that can be done to kind of share experiences and/or make sure that it’s known if anything is amiss at the polls or in voting? Clark, do you want to take that first?
Clark: Yes. First, we need everyone who is blind and low vision, to, vote. Um, that is the number one way that we can make our voices heard, that we can be visible, you know, Luanne mentioned that a lot of poll workers don’t know how to use or set up the accessible ballot marking devices, and, and I agree with Luanne. That we don’t need accessible ballot marking devices, we need everyone using THE, Same, ballot marking devices. They should all be accessible out of the box. Um, there was a recent survey done of voters after the 2020 election by disability researchers at Rutcar’s University. And I believe their findings were that roughly 20 percent of voters with disabilities found it hard, or very hard, to vote. And that’s, that’s the, the stigma that we are up against, uh, so that is why it is so important for us to be counted. And to exercise our right to vote. When you are doing this, uh, if the process has not gone well, certainly the American Council of the Blind, we would like to hear about it, our state affiliates would like to hear about it, um, you can always send us an email at
I’d strongly encourage folks to get in touch with their state affiliates for ACB, because they may already be working on voting access, and voting rights advocacy efforts. In addition, every state and territory has a federally mandated protection and advocacy organization. And those P and A’s, for short, they engage in legal advocacy, and assist people with disabilities when it comes to ensuring their rights as voters. Um, so contacting your state or territory protection and advocacy agency is another way to ensure that your voice is heard, that you can document what happened or what went wrong. Last but not least, I mentioned before, filing complaints with the department of justice, but also potentially being able to, or willing, to share your story as a, as a plaintiff, or a witness, in legal advocacy efforts. Uh, these are all possible ways to advocate, or to engage in the voting process, and then one more item I’d share, being willing to contact your board of elections, or elections office. Because sometimes, by being able to speak with the right person, you can affect change more quickly than engaging in either a legal or a regulatory process.
Liz: Luanne, do you have anything that you’d like to add?
Luanne: Yeah, well I think it’s really important to emphasize, contacting your local elections office if, if you run into problems, uh, at the, at your polling place. Um, ’cause otherwise, they’re probably not gonna know that the ballot marking device was not set up when you arrived at the polling place. So I, I think contacting your local elections office and telling them what happened. Also, you know, I always encourage our NFB chapters to invite, uh, election officials to a meeting. And bring along the ballot marking device so that members can, you know, practice vote. Um, and do the same thing with our affiliates. Invite the state board of elections or secretary of state to come to their annual convention. Um, so, because it’s important, I think, for these election officials to get to know their voters. Especially their voters with disabilities. ‘Ccause as Clark said, you’re gonna get action a lot faster by talking with them directly. Um, it takes years for a complaint to go through DOJ. Uh, you know, a number of our state affiliates filed complaints in 2020. And, nothing has really happened with those complaints. I mean, uh, you know, DOJ says they’re investigating, you know, but it’s been two years. You know, if you can work something out at the local level, I think that’s certainly the better way to go.
Chris: Are there any things that have happened in recent memory that have hurt, or that are hurting our advocacy efforts? Luanne, would you like to start?
Luanne: Well, uh, I certainly think Covid has, (Chuckle.) Hurt our advocacy efforts. Um, not being able to have those face to face meetings, you know, with the state legislators, state election officials, probably hurt, uh, our advocacy efforts. The fear around security with our elections has hurt our advocacy efforts. Um, particularly when it comes to accessible vote by mail. You know, we want our elections to be secure, but we don’t want these fears to override the rights of blind and low vision voters to, to vote, by mail, privately and independently like any other voter.
Liz: Is there anything that you would like to share that we have not yet asked you? Clark, would you want to go first?
Clark: Absolutely, and, uh, if folks would like more information, uh, you can always visit
where we outline the federal legislation related to your voting rights, as well as additional information and resources to access the information for your state or locality on how to register, how to vote, … that process. We also include your recent news items. I’m glad Luanne shared the work that both ACB and NFB are doing together in Illinois, uh, but that’s not the only example. New York. Uh, Virginia. Uh, you know, Missouri. And others. Um, our, our folks, whether they’re ACB members or NFB members, everyone wants the right, uh, their constitutional right to a, a private and independent vote, and this advocacy work will continue.
Liz: Luanne, do you have anything you’d like to add?
Luanne: Sure. Yeah. Um, a lot of blind voters aren’t really aware of the accessibility features, um, that are on ballot marking devices. Well we have some BND videos on that website for the more commonly used ballot marking devices that you’ll find in, in a polling place, and it, these videos demonstrate the accessibility features of these machines, and how to mark a ballot using these machines. Um, so, that’s something that, um, your listeners might want to check out, and get familiar with, with their machine, that’s in their polling place before they, they go to vote.
Chris: Well thank you both, and, real quick, uh, would both of you reiterate where people can contact you or your organization? Luanne?
Luanne: Sure. Um, my email address is [email protected], as in National Federation of the Blind, dot org, and again, our, our, our main web page is
our voting web page is
and our phone number is 410-659-9314.
Clark: Yes. Absolutely. The, the best way to contact the American Council of the Blind for voting related issues, um, you can always visit our website at
you can email
you’ll notice a uh, a theme here, and then, you can call our national office at 202-467-5081, uh, but I’d really encourage folks to, for any voting related issues, to, to email
so that we do have, have that paper trail, as it were, um, in case that becomes necessary for, uh, additional advocacy efforts in the future.
Liz: Clark and Luanne, thank you both for being here, and sharing information related to a very important topic.
Luanne: Thank you again.
Clark: Thank you. And don’t forget to vote.
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