SLU LAW Legal Clinic Advocates for Voting Accessibility

March 14, 2016

A cornerstone of American democracy is the right to cast a vote with a secret ballot. Congress affirmed this right in 2002 for blind and visually impaired people when it passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). The act mandated that at least one voting machine be placed in every precinct in the United States that allows for voting by means of large print screens and speech output. Federal funding is made available for the purchase of the machines.  Today, every voting precinct in Missouri is equipped with accessible voting machines.

On Monday, March 14, the Missouri Council of the Blind (MCB), in conjunction with the Saint Louis University School of Law Legal Clinics, hosted a press conference with officials from the St. Louis County Board of Election Commissioners and the St. Louis City Board of Election Commissioners to encourage all persons with disabilities, including the blind and visually impaired, to participate in Tuesday’s presidential primary election.

The Council applauded the efforts of the City and County Election officials to promote inclusion of all voters in the election and called on all other counties in Missouri to provide the same election accommodations for the disabled if they are not already doing so.  

Polling places are accessible to those with disabilities, including by audio ballot or ‘talking’ voting machines, which allow persons who are visually impaired or blind to vote by secret ballot at their neighborhood polling place without the need of someone to read the ballot for them.

Voting for blind people is not without its problems, however.  Some jurisdictions do not make the talking voting machines available during purely local elections, like those coming up on April 5.

Second-year law student Thomas Mihalczo spoke at the press conference. MCB has been his client this semester. “It is so obvious to me that something as simple as voting should be equal, and the fact that it isn’t is surprising.”

In addition to the press conference’s demonstration of the audio voting machine and encouraging participation during Tuesday’s primary, Mihalczo hopes current Missouri legislation can pass in order to make all elections in the state easily accessible to those with disabilities.

Currently, there are bills in both the Missouri House (HB-1379) and Senate (SB 1068) requiring that the audio ballot enabled machines be available for all polling places for all elections, including purely municipal elections. MCB calls on the Legislature to adopt these bills in the current session to make it clear that the policy in Missouri is to include all voters in all elections. 

“The Americans with Disabilities Act already requires that the blind and visually impaired have access to these machines in all elections,” said John Ammann (’84), professor and supervisor in the SLU LAW Legal Clinics. “We understand the fragmentation of government in our region creates a difficulty in programming the machines, especially with a short turnaround time between the March and April elections this year. But the ability exists to make these machines available in all elections, and the bills now before the Legislature would communicate clearly to local jurisdictions that state law also requires fully accessible voting on election day.” 

If anyone with a disability has difficulty in voting on Tuesday, he or she is invited to call the Missouri Council of the Blind at 832-7172 or the Saint Louis University School of Law Legal Clinics at 314-977-2778.

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