In 2012, an accessible voting machine in California broke down. Because of this, 5 visually impaired people could not vote. The 5 voters and members of the California Council for the Blind sued the county. The Council said that the broken machine violated the ADA. It also violated a 2006 law that requires accessible voting tools. Now, in 2018, the case has been settled. The county has agreed to implement WCAG 2.1 as their accessibility standard. This was a big success for accessible voting. This is because it provides a new standard for other counties to follow. It may even become the standard across the country.
When participating in an election, whether local or federal, you may not think twice about your ability to cast your vote privately. But for 5 visually impaired voters in Alameda County, their right to privacy was taken away thanks to broken voting equipment. Now, after years of negotiations and discussion about voting website accessibility, the 5 voters, along with members of the California Council for the Blind, have reached a settlement with Alameda County.
This case came about when accessible voting equipment in Alameda County broke down and was unable to be repaired in 2012. Visually impaired voters were unable to cast their ballots without the assistance of a family member or poll worker. The 5 voters, along with Jeff Thom, President of the California Council for the Blind, filed a suit against the county under two different laws:
- A 2006 federal law that requires at least one machine with voting options and ballot instructions on headphones and tactile keyboards at each polling location.
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which entitles individuals with disabilities equal access to government activities, programs, and services.
Alameda County argued that the ADA only guaranteed equal access to voting, and it did not apply to private ballots and vote casting. And while federal courts had agreed with Alameda County in past cases, U.S. Magistrate Joseph Spero from San Francisco did not. Spero argued that a secret ballot is a central feature of voting, and casting a vote with the assistance of a third party is an inferior voting experience.
Alameda County chose not to appeal the ruling from Spero, and the two parties were able to reach an agreement using structured negotiation. The agreement, which was reached on November 2, 2018, is the first in the country to implement WCAG 2.1 as the accessibility standard. It states that Alameda County will:
- Purchase accessible voting machines
- Improve poll worker training
- Set up an election day hotline for repairing or replacing broken equipment
- Implement an accessible vote by mail system
- Conduct automated and manual web accessibility testing
- Establish a user accessibility testing group
- Hold up to WCAG 2.1 standards
Additionally, the county’s voting website will allow certain content, such as sample ballots and voter information pamphlets to be accessed in accordance with WCAG 2.1. The Disability Rights Advocates group was awarded $70,000 to monitor the county’s accessible voting performance for the next three years.
What This Means for Voting Website Accessibility
This settlement is not just a simple “win,” but a huge step forward for voting website accessibility. The decision made by Alameda County to provide a more accessible voting process may even set a precedent for the rest of the country to follow. It also ensures that the rights of visually impaired voters (at least) in this county will be protected and upheld.