At Monday’s city council meeting the topic of the 2022 Municipal Election will come up again, but this time, it’s not about maps or the number of councillors. This Monday, the topic is voting itself, or rather making sure that everyone in town is able to vote in the next election regardless of any issues with accessibility they might be facing. As it stands right now, the barriers that some people are still facing are quite profound.
Back in February, council approved a mail-in voting option for next year’s election, and while it assuaged the security concerns of community members worried about hackers and cryptocurrency miners disrupting a virtual ballot, vote-by-mail left a great number of other community members behind.
“People like me who need to use a screen reader, or anyone from the blind community, anyone with low vision, and anyone who has trouble holding a pen to mark their ballot independently, they can’t get a ballot in the mail and mark it,” explained Lorelei Root, a member of the City’s Accessibility Advisory Committee (AAC).
“Currently the only option is to take our ballot to a family member and say, ‘Can you vote for so-and-so for me?'” Root added. “First of all, you have to disclose who you’re voting for, which isn’t always doable or safe, and second, you have to trust that this other person is voting the way you want them to. Forcing dependence like that is not accessible.”
Accessibility advocates like Root have been the loudest voice in supporting an online voting option since it is the most accessible to people with disabilities, and members of the AAC feel like they’re burdened with the responsibility of fighting for their voting rights every four years.
“I say to everyone that I talk to around accessibility that it’s a human story. We’ve got to remember that the policies we’re putting down are affecting real people and their ability to do anything,” said Mike Greer, the chair of the AAC. “When we’re looking at a situation we’ve got to look at it from 20 different angles. We’ve got to approach it from 20 different ways because someone with a mobility issue will approach a problem differently than someone who has hearing, or sight issues. So there needs to be that holistic perspective.”
The lack of a holistic perspective to the February vote came back to the AAC, and this past April they passed their own motion in committee to direct the clerks office to allow people with accessibility issues to use something called electronic ballot marking.
“It’s not an online voting system, it’s just people using a computer and a printer to mark the ballot rather than using a pen and paper,”said Root, who led the AAC subcommittee that developed this proposal. “So the vote is on a real paper ballot, it’s traceable, it has a signature, and it’s a valid, actual paper ballot that can be recounted and can’t be hacked, but people can use their assistive technology to mark it.”
Root point to a software company called Democracy Live and their product OmniBallot. Democracy Live touts that their products have been used to assist 35 million people with disabilities vote from 200,000 voting locations from across the United States and 96 other countries around the world. Security? OmniBallot uses an AWS cloud certification approved by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Department of Defense, FBI, the National Security Agency (NSA).
Root couldn’t disclose exact numbers on how much the purchase of licenses to use OmniBallot software might cost the City, but she indicated that even without special consideration, it could be cheaper than other commercially-licensed software. “One thing that’s interesting is that [Guelph] would be the first city in all of Canada to offer this, and because of that, the company is willing to offer really amazing pioneer pricing,” Rood said.
“One thing about people with disabilities is that we’re very adaptable, the system basically makes us find ways to get around any of the barriers that are put in front of us,” Greer added. “Lorelei did a lot of research to find new technologies, and new ways to address concerns like independence and security, while also opening up new avenues so that people can participate.”
Despite the research done by the AAC, the counter-proposal from the clerks’ office that will be presented Monday night is to initiate a pilot program for Vote from Home. Essentially, an election clerk will visit a person’s home and help them vote when they book a time during one of the three early voting days prior to Election Day. F0r 2022, the City will make 60 slots available.
If the city clerks thought that the Vote from Home option was the compromise that the AAC and its members were looking for, Root does not see it that way. “We don’t believe the Vote from Home pilot project they’re proposing is actually an acceptable option at all. It doesn’t address the concerns that many people have,” Root said.
“A Vote from Home pilot project is fine as a supplementary thing but it isn’t actually sensible because it doesn’t offer people the option to independently vote,” Root added. “It’s forcing dependency on people and having someone show up to your house and help you mark a ballot, so you still don’t get to vote privately and independently on your own.”
Root and the AAC asked for the June 4 information report on the Vote from Home pilot to be put on the council agenda for the end of the month. Mayor Cam Guthrie will speak to the report on Monday saying in a Guelph Today article that he would like council to agree to the Vote from Home pilot and direct the clerks office to explore electronic ballot marketing.
Greer said that he believes that the members of city council are interested in improving accessibility, but accessibility needs to always be a part of the conversation and not just addressed on a few, specified occasions, or by the request of accessibility advocates.
“Anything in regards to accessibility actually helps and impacts everyone. When we show people how to build stuff, and how to design technology and applications, everyone benefits from it,” Greer said. “I think when you start opening up more avenues for people to participate in the democratic process that’s not a bad thing when you still address the integrity of the process, and the security of the process.”
Root, who herself has multiple sclerosis and uses a screen reader to help process written text*, agrees and noted that accessibility is not about offering people with a disability just one alternative, but to present them with many different alternatives so that they can decide for themselves how best to engage.
“I’m so passionate about advocating to make sure that every disabled community is covered and is being accommodated so that they can still be a part of the conversation,” Root said. “Voting is one of the most critically important things you can do to make your voice heard, and if we’re not even able vote, we’re not being heard and we’re not being helped.”
*CORRECTION: This article was updated with more accurate information about Root’s condition.