The first time Jim Piet voted, he was inside a car surrounded by poll workers who had never been trained to deal with somebody afflicted with cerebral palsy.
Piet, now a public relations specialist from New Hampshire, was eager to cast his first ballot in the 1980 presidential election, but at age 19 the neurological disorder already had forced him into a wheelchair and slowed his speech to a labored stammer.
Nonetheless, he convinced a teacher at his special needs school to drive him many miles to the nearest polling place on Election Day. To vote in private there, Piet would have required, among other things, a special access ramp, a voting booth wide enough to fit his wheelchair and a staff trained to assist him.
But when he arrived, he couldn’t even enter the building.
Poll workers had to come out to the parking lot and mark a paper ballot while Piet painstakingly verbalized his choice of candidates from the passenger seat. When poll workers couldn’t understand his protracted speech pattern, Piet had to rely on his teacher to clarify his choices.
Piet didn’t return to a public polling place for another 20 years, choosing instead to vote by absentee ballot in order to avoid further humiliation.
“I just didn’t want to go through the hassle again,” he said. “There were five people listening to my vote that day. It was not exactly private.”
Piet’s experience is a familiar one for many of the more than 45 million eligible but disabled voters, according to Stephen Bennett, CEO of United Cerebral Palsy, a Washington, D.C.-based disabilities advocacy group.
“So many people are disenfranchised from one election to the next,” Bennett said. “They go to the polls only to find that they can’t use the equipment or even gain entrance. Or they’re just too embarrassed to go out and vote in the first place.”
With the 2004 presidential election on the horizon, disabilities advocacy groups like UCP are now stepping up their rhetoric in support of the Help America Vote Act, which establishes higher standards of voting accessibility at polling places. The law also requires at least one electronic voting system for visually, physically and hearing-impaired voters in every polling place in the country.
Members of Congress and activists alike have touted HAVA as a long-awaited solution to problems of unequal access at the polls.
“Voting is a fundamental right in this country that all voters should be able to exercise in an unimpeded manner,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who added that he hopes “HAVA will result in disabled voters seeing significant improvements this November.”
Traditional polling places can pose numerous obstacles to voters with disabilities.
Voting booths often require the voter to stand up at a counter — an impossibility for a paraplegic — and many polling places provide only paper ballots that must be read aloud to blind or dyslexic voters, thus preventing them from being able to vote in private.
Voters with afflictions like Parkinson’s disease, a neurological disorder that impairs movement in the arms, are usually unable to use lever-operated machines or punch-card ballots.
Such obstacles, voting rights activists say, have resulted in consistently low voter turnouts by the disabled population.
In 2000, for instance, 42 percent of eligible voters with a disability — as compared to 51 percent of the general voting population — cast a ballot for president, according to numbers available on UCP’s Web site.
Despite improvements promised by HAVA, some have criticized the legislation for failing to ensure safeguards like voter-verified paper trails in electronic voting machines.
Despite receiving wide support in Congress, HAVA — and the Election Assistance Commission mandated by the act — has been plagued by delays in funding and implementation since President Bush signed it into law in October 2002.
To date, Congress has appropriated $3 billion of the full $3.86 billion authorized for the legislation — but as of April 2004, only 18 percent of the total authorized funds had been disbursed to states, according to a report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
In 2003, the General Services Administration distributed $650 million to states for improving general election administration and replacing punch cards and lever machines.
Only recently has the EAC been able to start doling out additional federal grants for a variety of state-level election reforms — many of them to improve disability access. These grants were delayed earlier this year when the EAC learned it first had to spend about $800,000 to publish the states’ spending plans in the Federal Register before making any disbursements.
“We’re not holding our breath that there will be a lot of real progress by the November election,” said Janna Starr, a spokeswoman for the UCP-Arc Public Policy Collaboration. “There has just been too much foot-dragging on this.”
HAVA requires every polling place to comply with accessibility standards and have at least one electronic voting machine by January 2007.
Efforts to ensure greater accessibility have also been hampered somewhat by political wrangling over how much to appropriate for HAVA implementation. For instance, Congress secured $1.5 billion for fiscal 2004 only after extensive vocal debate following the White House’s request for just $500 million that year.
With the litany of competing demands in this year’s $800 million plus discretionary spending budget — as well as spending caps imposed by the White House last year — delays and shortages in funding for legislation like HAVA are common, election officials say.
“It boils down to a matter of priorities” in a capped budget, said Sean Greene, research director at Electionline.org, which tracks changes in voting systems. “I don’t think anyone would actually oppose fully funding disability access [laws] if they could do it.”
Such explanations have not satisfied many civil rights activists, who continue to push for full funding of HAVA in the run-up to the November elections.
“Congress isn’t going to pay attention to us if we don’t make a little noise, and this is the perfect time to do that,” said Carol Fransisco, a medical transcriptionist from Nashville, Tenn., who has been blind all her life. “The squeaky wheel is the one that gets fixed.”