by Mary Ciccone
The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally altered when and how we vote in New Jersey. To reconcile public health and safety with the public’s right to vote, on March 9, Governor Murphy’s Executive Order 105 postponed certain elections to May 12, 2020, and made those elections exclusively Vote-by-Mail. Although Vote-by-Mail has long been an option for New Jersey residents, for people with certain disabilities — those with vision or dexterity limitations, for example — voting-by-mail presents barriers that prevent them from voting secretly and independently.
According to the American Association of People with Disabilities, in 2018 only 40 percent of eligible individuals with disabilities voted, and many individuals cited existing barriers as a reason to not vote. Lack of accessibility will only make it more difficult for individuals with disabilities to vote.
Accessible vote-by-mail ballots exist, however. Where accessible voting is an option, a voter with a disability can request a ballot to be sent electronically, automark it, and return it electronically, all without barriers or the need for assistance. The right to vote is impeded only when these ballots are not made available. Why hasn’t New Jersey adopted this practice for all elections? Some argue that permitting people with disabilities to vote electronically would make our election system less secure.
To the contrary, however, New Jersey residents serving overseas in the military are permitted to receive and send their ballots electronically and have been doing so for many years without incident. Other states such as Colorado and Maryland are already using this technology to ensure that individuals with disabilities have equal access to the vote-by-mail ballot, a requirement for state and local governments under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Moreover, paper ballots that can be stolen or lost in the mail are no more or less secure.
Tracy Carcione, a voter with a visual impairment, was concerned about her ability to vote when Governor Murphy postponed her town’s municipal elections to May 12, and ordered them to be conducted entirely by vote-by-mail. She lives alone and was not sure how she would be able to fill out the paper ballot. She contacted the County Clerk, and they advised her that — for this election only — she could request an accessible ballot that would be sent to her electronically and could then be returned electronically. She received the ballot, completed it with ease, and returned it. Because of this system, she was able to cast her vote.
It is time for New Jersey to adopt this practice for all elections. For individuals with disabilities, the most fundamental constitutional right — the right to vote — requires it.
Mary Ciccone is the director of policy for Disability Rights New Jersey, based on South Broad Street in Trenton. Visit www.drnj.org.
Editor’s Note: Disability Rights New Jersey has had to address a number of legal issues that have arisen in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The group has now launched a website, www.drnj-covid.org, that illuminates the group’s work and offers resources for individuals with disabilities and their caregivers. The group received a COVID-19 Emergency Community Law Grant from the New Jersey State Bar Foundation for its work.