In Focus This Week If you provide it, they still might not come

  • March 20, 2014

By M. Mindy Moretti

Marin County's (Calif.) Registrar of Voters, Elaine Ginnold, was faced with a vexing problem.

Since installing accessible ballot-marking devices in each precinct in 2006 in the Bay Area county, on average no more than seven disabled voters used the machines per election.

The machines were there to make voting easier, but why weren’t voters using them?

Ginnold had heard of no problems with the machines themselves and only anecdotally heard about voting preferences of some disabled voters.

“We wondered why more voters weren’t using the accessible ballot marking machine at the polls, which are required by the Help America Vote Act [HAVA],” Ginnold said. “We wondered if we needed to do more outreach to encourage voters to use them. We also wondered if there could be accessibility issues we didn’t know about.”

So using more than $13,000 in HAVA funds, Ginnold’s office partnered with Elizabeth Bergman an assistant professor in political science at Cal State, East Bay to survey the county’s disabled voters to find out how they preferred to vote.

Ginnold said her office decided conducting the survey was important because it is a common assumption that voters with disabilities prefer to vote at the polls on accessible voting equipment.

“I think that academic surveys like this test common assumptions about voter behavior and lead to more informed and cost effective voter outreach efforts,” Ginnold said.

What they found had nothing to do with the availability of accessible voting machines, and everything to do with the availability of a stamp and mailbox:

  • Marin voters with disabilities prefer voting by mail by an overwhelming margin and, furthermore, that the mode of voting has a greater impact on the turnout of voters with disabilities than the availability of accessible voting machines at the polls;
  • A higher percentage (82 percent) of people with disabilities prefer to vote by mail than people without disabilities (73.3 percent); and
  • There is no correlation between disability and voting on an accessible voting device. A supermajority (76.4 percent) of the respondents said they had never voted on an accessible voting machine. The lack of use is not due to lack of availability since there is one accessible voting device in every polling place in the county and voters get information about it in the sample ballot mailed to them before every election.

“This is the first academic survey to ask individuals what functional limitations they have that interfere with voting and about their preferred mode of voting,” Ginnold said. “It’s findings shed new light on the causes of low voter turnout…and challenge the assumption that people with disabilities prefer to vote at the polls on accessible voting equipment.”

To get to these answers, the registrar’s office worked with the county’s Health and Human Services Department as well as numerous service organizations in the county that work with people with disabilities.

The county sent out 8,400 surveys that were both on paper and online. Five thousand paper surveys were mailed to voters 80 years and older. Another 2,000 were handed out directly to individuals in person and 1,400 email invitations with a link to the survey were sent out by organizations directly to their members.

According to Ginnold, the final sample was 1,300, which is a 15 percent response rate.

She said that the three greatest challenges faced while conducting the survey were reaching the target population, designing the survey questions and finally the best way to deploy the survey in the field.

So now that Ginnold has her answers, will that change anything in how Marin conducts its elections? She noted that the survey helps shape the county’s outreach efforts and that while the machines are important to have at the polls, it is important to continue to promote vote-by-mail.

“Current public election policy is very polling place-centric and pays little attention to other voting options that are more accessible to all voters, including people with disabilities,” Ginnold said. “Surveys like this one can inform other jurisdictions about ways to improve accessibility and turnout for all voters.”

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