Blind New York voters have a new accessible absentee ballot option this year. But some of the voters say the ballots come with one major flaw: they require people who can’t see or read text to print them out and mail them in.

The ballots come after advocacy groups sued the state Board of Elections in 2020. The suit settled this past April, and required the state to create the ballot, which allows blind voters to mark their choices electronically using screen reader technology. For those with limited vision, the technology allows them to increase the font size or alter the color contrast.

Despite the new statewide ballot — intended to increase participation among the blind — advocates say the ballots have some issues that prevent complete voter privacy and ease, raising concerns ahead of Election Day on Nov. 8.

“Blind people don’t often have computer printers because they’re not of much use. We don’t read print,” said Ian Foley, a legislative assistant with the New York chapter of the American Council of the Blind.

Blind voters like Foley want to be able to return the accessible ballot online. The state Board of Elections said that presents security risks, citing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s concerns that such a move can lead to a greater chance of election meddling.

Advocates have pointed out that 25 states and the District of Columbia already allow electronic ballot returns for some types of voters, including people who are blind or have limited vision. In New York, voters apply for the new ballots via email, which are then delivered to them. The ballots work with the user’s screen reading technology. The software scans the ballot, and a computerized voice reads the choices aloud. For low-vision voters, the ballots offer large text.

Blind voters say the voting process has improved

Despite their complaints about having to print out a ballot, some blind voters say casting a ballot under this system is an improvement.

Rich Laine, a Mount Kisco resident who is blind, would prefer to send in his ballot online. He said this process is a vast improvement over his voting options from previous years, and added that past voting practices for blind people eliminated their privacy and independence.

Years ago, when Laine was first voting as a blind person at a poll site, a Republican and a Democrat sat with him to help him make his selection, removing his privacy.

“It’s a bit awkward having other people observe your vote. Especially if you’re voting straight Democrat and a Republican is sitting next to you,” said Laine, who sat in his living room across from his girlfriend Audrey Schading, whose seeing-eye dog was splayed out nearby.

Like Laine, Schading also had to rely on others to help her vote and would take family members to the polls. She recounted a time 30 years ago when she had to solicit help from her 8-year-old daughter, who had a different perspective on the candidates.

“She wanted George [H. W.] Bush to be in [office] because Barbara Bush was helping children learn how to read, and we were voting for Bill Clinton,” said Schading.

Now, Laine and Schading say at least with the new ballots they can vote in private and without any influence from children or members of the opposite political party.

Audrey Schading types on her Braillant keyboard.

Voting in person

Most blind voters who spoke to Gothamist said they preferred the relative ease of the accessible absentee ballot over going to the polls. But some still prefer to vote in person.

Maria Samuels, director of Westchester Disabled on the Move, a nonprofit center for people with disabilities in Westchester and surrounding counties, says it’s important for blind and disabled voters to cast ballots in person so poll workers and others can understand the lengths blind people go to in order to vote.

“If they don’t know you are in their community, they are not going to understand your needs,” said Samuels.

Samuels said it’s hard to find poll workers who are adequately trained in helping blind voters use the in-person technology, known as a ballot marking device.

Samuels also acknowledged homebound voters should have the option to return their accessible ballots electronically.

State’s ‘hand was forced’

Advocates for the blind say it took multiple legal attempts to finally clinch the new accessible absentee ballots.

After the settlement was issued, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Jelena Kolic, said the state BOE attempted to back out of making the ballots by telling the courts it did not have enough time to prepare them. The courts again sided with the voters after Kolic filed a grievance.

Foley took issue with the fact that it had to come to this point to get the ballots.

“Their hand was forced,” he said.

His lawyer agreed.

“We didn’t think it was justified for another election cycle to go by without another accessible absentee option for our constituents,” said Kolic. “It’s safe to say we were not happy with what was happening.”

Though Kolic said their outlook is improving with the state’s issuance of the ballots. She said her organization, Disability Rights Advocates, will continue to monitor the state BOE to ensure they remain compliant with the lawsuit.

Getting an ‘accessible’ ballot

As of Oct. 27, just under 1,000 New York voters have requested the accessible ballots for this upcoming general election. The state BOE told Gothamist the rollout has gone smoothly thus far.

But in his Mount Kisco home, Laine sat at his desk, trying unsuccessfully to access his ballot using a screen reading program called Jaws. The computerized male voice told Laine it could not find his information.

Laine was able to request his ballot just fine, but once it was time to open it and vote, the website wouldn’t let him. He had to call the BOE again.

The state BOE told Gothamist that Laine did not enter his information correctly. Laine disputes that.

“All it wants is my name and date of birth … as far as I know I remember how to spell my name and what my date of birth is,” said Laine. “I'm annoyed, it seems like it should just be a simple thing.”

After nearly a week and multiple calls to the BOE, Laine was able to successfully open and fill out his ballot on Oct. 27. But he says he found the printing process confusing. He found he needed to recruit help from a sighted person to make sure it printed properly. And that meant the process was still not private.

Laine said he hopes one day he’ll be able to vote just as easily and privately as everyone else, like he could when he still had sight.

“It was nice when I was able to vote independently and not have to rely on other people. That's a really important thing to me to be able to vote this way,” he said.

Richard Laine speaks on the phone with a BOE representative about a challenge in accessing his ballot. “All it wants is my name and date of birth … as far as I know I remember how to spell my name and what my date of birth is,” he said. “I'm annoyed, it seems like it should just be a simple thing.”