Floridians with disabilities may face more voting obstacles | Opinion | Opportunity For All Floridians

Floridians with disabilities may face more voting obstacles | Opinion

Florida’s vote-by-mail system is a critical piece of the state’s free and fair elections, enabling millions of Floridians to participate in the democratic process. Access to vote-by-mail is particularly important for voters with disabilities, the majority of whom vote by mail due to transportation and other access barriers. However, recent changes to the vote-by-mail request system proposed by Cord Byrd, Florida’s secretary of state, could create significant barriers for people with disabilities. These proposed changes could limit their access to the ballot box and make Florida’s elections less fair and less free.

In 2021, the legislature passed SB 90, which made a number of changes to Florida’s vote-by-mail laws. One of the biggest changes was the mass expiration of every single vote-by-mail request in the state after the 2022 general election. SB 90 also placed restrictions on who can return a mail ballot on behalf of another person, creating additional barriers to Florida voters with disabilities.

Troubling proposals

One of the most troubling proposals would take away Floridians’ ability to request a vote-by-mail ballot via the phone. If enacted, this change would particularly limit access to vote-by-mail for people with disabilities. Vote-by-mail ballot request forms on Supervisor of Elections’ websites are not always accessible and voters who use assistive technology to navigate websites and complete forms might not be able to complete this form at all. If voters can no longer request a vote-by-mail ballot via telephone, voters without internet access or who use assistive technologies may be left without a way to even request a vote-by-mail ballot. 

Florida has had accessible vote-by-mail programs mandated by statute for over 20 years, but the state has failed to work with the disability community to develop them. In fact, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, members of the Florida Council of the Blind found that they did not have a safe method to vote. As a result of their litigation, all 67 counties are required to have a remote accessible vote-by-mail program.

However, this still is not a fully accessible process as the state does not allow disabled voters to return the ballot electronically, a right already granted to overseas and military voters. In order to complete a remote accessible vote-by-mail ballot, voters will need access to the internet and a printer in order to print out their ballot. Most households in the US do not have printers, and this technology gap is even greater within the disability community.

The proposed changes also create access barriers for first-time Florida voters who register by mail and have never voted in Florida. The proposed changes would require these voters to vote in person for the first time, which would create obvious access barriers for those with mobility impairments and those who lack transportation.

When we’re talking about Floridians with disabilities, it’s important to get the numbers right. According to a Rutgers report that analyzes the disability vote every election cycle, there are actually 2.5 million voters with disabilities in Florida, but the Secretary of State’s report only references 467,000 voters with disabilities. This discrepancy is significant and highlights the lack of understanding of the needs of the disability community and the impact these changes could have on this already marginalized community.

There are some parts of Secretary Byrd’s proposals that do deserve consideration. Disability Rights Florida appreciates his recommendation for a uniform application for vote-by-mail requests since some counties still use vote-by-mail request forms that are not accessible.

Florida has a responsibility to ensure that its election system is accessible to all eligible voters, including those with disabilities. Florida’s legislature must consider the needs of the disability community and work collaboratively to ensure that all eligible voters have access to the ballot box.

Olivia Babis, Senior policy analyst with Disability Rights Florida

Olivia Babis is a senior policy analyst with Disability Rights Florida.

This piece was originally published in the Sarasota Herald Tribune

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