Poll worker training key to smooth voting experience for people with disabilities

When it comes to helping people with disabilities vote, Linda Stewart advises election workers to have “the eye.”

“It’s where you can see what they need,” says Stewart, who is limited in her ability to walk.

Empathy for people with disabilities goes a long way, either through personal experience or education, says Stewart. Either way provides them with a river of understanding that flows in the right direction.

“The only way I got ‘the eye’ was when I went to Disability Advocates,” says Stewart, who previously worked the front desk for the organization’s Kent County office, then as an election worker in Muskegon Heights and later Kent County. “I saw the different disabilities one could have and still serve in the community or in life. I carried that with me even with my disability because, when I got my disability, I thought life was over. And then I went there and saw that life is not over. I’ve still got life, even though I had two knee replacements.”

Lisa Sullivan agrees Election Day is not a time for poll workers to be timid.

“Feel free to ask people what would be most helpful for them. Have patience for people,” says Sullivan, information and referral specialist for Disability Network West Michigan. “Take the person’s word for it if they say they have a disability. Some people have disabilities that are not obvious, but they need extra help. People with disabilities are like everyone else; you’re going to run into some who are nice and some who are not nice. Just try to be accommodating and accepting of them.”
Lisa Sullivan
Steps have been taken in Michigan to ensure people with disabilities don’t face voting roadblocks, says Sullivan, who is blind. 

“(By not accommodating people with disabilities at the polls) you are risking a growing segment of the population not registering their vote, and they have a larger stake in the whole system,” says Sullivan. “We need to make sure we are represented by our representatives. People with disabilities, like other minorities, are often overlooked when it comes to decisions. If they don’t get proper representation, they can’t vote for legislators that can best represent them.”

Accommodation throughout Michigan

Michigan has 83 counties, 274 cities, and 1,242 townships, all of which allow their citizens to vote in national, state, and local elections. All polling locations along the Lakeshore (and across the state of Michigan) are set up to accommodate people with disabilities in a variety of ways.

This includes establishing polling places that have adequate accessible parking spaces, large entrances and hallways, visible signage, and wheelchair-accessible voting stations. Each polling place is also equipped with paper voting instructions in Braille for those who have vision disabilities. The state of Michigan lays out all of the requirements on its website here.

Each polling place is equipped with an accessibility device. In Ottawa County, this device is known as a Touch Writer. Essentially, it is a ballot-marking device that voters can use if they have any sort of disability. Voters can use the touchscreen or the adaptive controller (which includes a Braille feature) to make selections on their ballots, have the ballot read to them through headphones, or use a sip-and-puff device to make selections. 

Voters also have the ability to change other options, such as the font size, audio volume and speed, and screen contrast.

“I believe that many voters don’t know this device is available,” says Katie Sims, elections coordinator for Ottawa County.

She adds election inspectors are equipped with tools during training — known as disability etiquette — that they can use to assist voters with disabilities. 

Katie Sims, elections coordinator for Ottawa County

Voters who are blind and others with significant disabilities that previously prevented them from using absentee voter ballots privately and independently can apply for an accessible absentee voter ballot. This allows voters to mark the documents on an electronic device, using their own assistive technology, without visiting a polling place or clerk's office. Voters may apply online for an accessible electronic absentee voter ballot, which can be completed electronically, printed, and returned to the local clerk. Apply for an accessible electronic absentee voter ballot here.

“We have found that many voters with disabilities are choosing to vote by mail rather than come into a precinct. However, there are several options available to them if they do choose to vote in person,” adds Sims.

For those who opt to vote in person, the Michigan Bureau of Elections advises election workers not to push a person’s wheelchair or grab the arm of someone walking with difficulty without being asked. They are encouraged to listen and pay attention to someone who is hard of hearing, calmly repeat instructions to a person with memory deficits, and greet a person who is blind by explaining who they are. Additional tips can be found here.

State and federal laws permit voters with disabilities to be accompanied and to receive assistance from another person in the voting booth.

Help in Southwest Michigan

Need more help? Disability Network Southwest Michigan can assist with registering to vote, finding your voting registry, locating your polling place, helping to file a complaint if your polling location is not accessible, and providing a customized free presentation to your group about voting.

Disability Network Southwest Michigan can also answer voting-related questions about guardianship, felony records, and the absentee ballot process. For more information, call 269-345-1516, toll-free at 1-877-674-5209, or email: [email protected].

Paul Ecklund, Americans with Disabilities Act specialist and systems advocate for Disability Network Southwest Michigan, says there has been a major change in the state over the past few years to help people with disabilities vote.

Lucia Rios with her mail-in ballot.

National Federation of The Blind sued the state of Michigan for not having accessible absentee ballots, meaning people who were blind couldn’t vote independently, according to Ecklund. So the state created its accessible absentee ballot. 

Voters can go to Michigan.gov/vote and have an application sent to their computer and, usually with Adobe Acrobat Reader, have it read to them. Then they can fill it out and send it back to their local clerk.

Personal experience

“Every single clerk and voting place must have an accessible voting machine, but there is a problem with some of that,” says Ecklund, who is legally blind. “A lot of poll workers lack good training on how to deal with people living with disabilities. 
Paul Ecklund
“For instance, a number of times when I’ve gone in, I would be asked to show my ID to prove that I am registered and then they give me a ballot. I start walking to the express vote station, which is the voter-assist terminal in Portage, and I’ve been told I can’t use that one because they gave me a regular ballot and the express vote requires its own type of ballot. Then, they have to give me a ballot that will work on the express vote.”

Ecklund says his experience has shown him that, too often, election workers do not have an accessible voting machine set up when polls open on Election Day. But when it’s up and running, it works well, he says.

“The express ballot is a very versatile machine — the blind can hear it and the deaf can see it,” says Ecklund. “It’s also user-friendly for people who have dexterity problems like very severe arthritis.

“I like to go to the polls just to see if the poll workers had set up the voting machines properly for people with disabilities,” says Ecklund. “And then see if they’ve all been trained to ask each voter if they’re using the express vote and ask each voter when they present their identification if they would like to use the accessible voting machine. If they did that, they wouldn’t spoil a ballot by handing you the wrong one.”

Ecklund says it’s vital the disability community is fully part of the voting process.

“If they can’t get in to vote, they lose their voice basically to the government as to what they want to have happen,” says Ecklund. “I think every citizen needs to have that right. It’s too bad that people don’t actually get out and vote, that the voter turnout is not what it should be, in my opinion. Every citizen should go out and express their vote.”

This article is a part of the year-long 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.


How COVID-19 changed voting for people with disabilities
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.