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‘I Can Finally Vote by Myself’: Disability Advocate Works to Improve Accessibility at the Polls

November 30, 2023
Source: Second Wave Media (Michigan)

Since she turned 18, Miranda Grunwell has voted in every election for the past 22 years. But it hasn’t been easy because of a severe learning disability.

“I can’t read well on my own, and so a ballot was hard to read,” Grunwell says.

Early on, she was assisted by her mother, and then her college roommate. But she soon wanted to do it independently.

Fortunately, a ballot marking device called AutoMark was introduced in 2003. Voters could use the device to mark their ballot through the use of a large-font touch screen, braille keypad and audio headset, or with the aid of their own personal sip/puff device or foot pedal that can be plugged into a port on the front of the terminal.  The touch screen features magnification and contrast features, and the audio ballot can be adjusted for speed and volume.

About five years ago, the technology was upgraded in Kalamazoo County, where Grunwell lives, to “Express Vote” machines. These devices, called Voter Assist Terminals, allow voters to mark their ballot electronically using a touch screen instead of the traditional paper ballots.

Access wrongfully denied

Despite technology that is supposed to protect privacy and accessibility to people with disabilities, election workers often don’t understand who has the right to use the equipment, Grunwell says, speaking from experience. She has been denied access to AutoMark and Express Vote more than once.

Election workers aren’t supposed to determine who uses the machines because many individuals have disabilities that are not readily apparent and cannot be easily seen. The decision to use the technology is supposed to be up to the voter.

“When AutoMark came out, it was life-changing because I could finally vote by myself,” Grunwell says. “I was so excited, but then it was never set up.” 

Or if it was set up, she was told she needed to show she was eligible by having a guide dog or using a wheelchair. When she has been allowed to use the technology, it has come with troubling comments like “We set this just up for you,” or “Can I watch you vote to see how it works?” Both felt disrespectful, she says.

“The technology came out 20 years ago and I’m still fighting for the right to vote with these machines,” Grunwell says.

She’s been advocating for herself and others with disabilities since before she could vote. Her involvement with disability rights efforts began in high school, and by college she was serving on the Youth Advisory Board of the National Council for Disability as well as committees at the state level.

Frustration over her treatment at the polls led Grunwell to become a poll worker. It also seemed fitting considering that her grandparents served as poll workers, and they were passionate about the importance of voting.

Seeing the shortcomings

Being on the inside gave her a closer look at the flaws in the system.

“When I became a poll worker, I went through the training, and I saw how little training there was. They showed us a video, which was poorly done, and then the trainer asked if there were any questions. Everybody said no. She then said, ‘Don’t forget, this is really great for blind people,’ and then we moved on,” says Grunwell.

“I raised my hand and I said, ‘Excuse me? No, it’s not.’ (The trainer) said, ‘Well, who else would want to use this?’ I said, ‘I do. I have a learning disability. I read at about a fifth-grade reading level.’ So I had to self disclose, and thankfully, I’m fine doing that, but I don’t think the average person would, nor should I have to.”

That experience, she says, illustrates the need for better election worker training. As a community education program manager with Disability Network Southwest Michigan, she has tried to offer such training to election clerks who train poll workers.

The training provided by cities and townships can vary greatly. For example, Grunwell says, the city of Kalamazoo has better training regarding disability access at the polls than other communities, in part because the clerk uses materials provided by Disability Network Southwest Michigan.

“We rarely get complaints from people voting in the city of Kalamazoo,” she says.

Calls for statewide training standards

There can be misinformation out there about the rights of people with disabilities to vote. For example, Grunwell says she’s heard from one person with a disability who was told she couldn’t vote because she had a guardian.

“That’s not true in the state of Michigan,” she says.

“There’s a whole lot of bias against people with disabilities voting for various reasons. But what’s at stake is the right of people with disabilities to vote.”

The answer to the uneven enforcement of disability rights at polling locations is to have the state set training requirements.

“There needs to be some kind of consistency,” Grunwell says. “I would really like to see some consistent training for all poll workers, and I would like to see the training done by people with disabilities who have those lived experiences.”

Nearly every issue on the ballot has an impact for a person with a disability.

“In some ways, I think all issues really come down to disability, whether it’s education, women’s rights or transportation,” says Grunwell. “People with disabilities come from all aspects of life. So how do you have a topic that’s not disability related?”

Training poll workers

Kalamazoo County provides training of election inspectors from throughout the county, but not for all jurisdictions. Any jurisdiction with 10,000 or more people can provide their own training. The city of Kalamazoo is the largest jurisdiction that provides training, according to Meredith Place, Kalamazoo County clerk.

Her office will train all election inspectors who are appointed to work at an early voting site in 2024. Every inspector trained by her team receives about 20 minutes of training on ExpressVote, including the right of voters to access it. This video from the Michigan Secretary of State is part of that training.

“My office is committed to protecting the rights of all voters and educating election inspectors to create accessible voter experiences and will continue to emphasize the rights of voters with disabilities in all future trainings,” Place says.

Erica Eklov, the Portage city clerk, says her office works in several ways to ensure poll workers make proper accommodations and to do so with respect.

It begins by educating the workers that the ExpressVote is simply a “marking tool,” not a tabulator, that any voter can use. As such, Eklov says, workers should not ask why a voter wants to use it – simply prepare the ballot as usual.

“We advise workers that the voter may seek assistance but to proceed in pairs of the two major parties and do so quietly and with respect to the vote,” she says.

“Our first-time workers receive training either from us or the County Clerk’s Office regarding how the ExpressVote operates, including the option to connect a sip-and-puff wheelchair to the machine for voting operations,” she explains.

Additionally, Eklov says poll workers are asked to review additional training material posted on the city website, including a video from the Michigan Bureau of Elections regarding accessibility and disability rights. The city this year has added a video channel regarding election accessibility from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Those links can be accessed on the city’s Election Worker Training Resources web page.

There’s also an informational video from Election Systems and Software, the manufacturer of the ExpressVote, on the city’s main voting web page for all voters to watch.

“Since I’ve become city clerk in 2020, if our office receives a citizen complaint about a precinct experience, then myself or the deputy city clerk will visit the precinct same-day to advise and properly retrain those workers,” says Eklov.

She adds that after she received a complaint five years ago when she was a deputy clerk from an election worker who also works with Disability Network of Southwest Michigan, she has made sure to follow the organization, tries to learn from educational postings it offers, and passes on anything she can to the precinct chairpersons.

“If the complaint is received after Election Day, then staff ensure to include the matter in our next training,” Eklov says. “In either scenario, we make sure to reach out to the voter to apologize for a sub-par experience, ask what we can do better, and whether the voter has any additional suggestions for us to incorporate in future training.”

[Note:] This article is a part of the multi-year series Disability Inclusion, exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.

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