Bedford woman joins fight for better voting access

by Derrek Tipton — Bedford Times-Mail

A Bedford woman is part of a fight to help make voting accessibility easier for blind and visually impaired Hoosiers. In Early December, a complaint was filed against the Indiana Election Commission, members of the election commission and Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson. The lawsuit was filed by American Council of the Blind of Indiana, Indiana Protection and Advocacy Services Commission and individuals Kristin Fleschner, Wanda Tackett and Bedford resident Rita Kersh. The complaint was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division.

Indiana’s Absentee Vote from Home Program is, according to the complaint, “among the most restrictive absentee voting programs in the nation for blind voters.”
“The defendants offer three mechanisms for Indiana citizens to vote from home,” the complaint states. “Certain Indiana voters are able to vote from home privately and independently by fax or email; other Indiana voters are able to vote from home privately and independently by mail-in paper ballot; and Indiana voters with certain disabilities … are forced to submit to the aid and schedule of a ‘traveling board’ of elections officials who fill out their ballots for them in order to vote from home.

“However, these voters with disabilities would be able to vote privately, independently, and on their own schedules if Indiana permitted them to use widely available remote absentee vote-by-mail technology.”
Kersh said her only choice was to vote in-person this year, despite her disability.
Traveling boards can assist voters from their home, but some voters were concerned about potential COVID-19 transmission. Lawrence County Clerk Billie Tumey said the county experienced issues related to the travel board.

“As far as home visits, it made it more difficult for travel board voting,” Tumey said. “The board would have to read the ballot to a voter over the phone, while seeing them though a window or door. With a travel board, it takes away the voter’s complete privacy. All absentee board members swear to an oath to keep all ballots secret and secure.”

Kersh said she brought relatives with her to assist in the voting process, so she could be aware of her surroundings. Kersh said the county clerk’s office emailed her a sample ballot, then she translated it to braille. Kersh says there should be an easier way for blind individuals to vote, such as online ballots that are submitted by members of the military. Several states, like Delaware and West Virginia, have implemented online absentee voting systems.

“There are several states who have developed accessible absentee voting by using your own personal computer at home, so you have the privacy and are doing it independently,” Kersh said. “The secretary of state and the election committee were made aware of what these other states were doing, but they blew us off. When we were talking to the secretary of state and election committee, we told them that if they were willing to adapt the online voting that is used by the military and overseas citizens, it would make it possible to vote online, but they were not willing to do that. They refused to let us use that voting process.”

Despite the state’s adherence to the Americans with Disabilities Act, Kersh said this is one area where Indiana falls short.
“It is the law that voting is supposed to be accessible with disabilities, and the ADA has been around more than 30 years. Why is it taking so long, with technology the way it is, for the changes to be made?” she asked.

Rosie Bichell, an attorney and disability rights advocate, said Indiana’s voting system is “one of the most restrictive.”
“There are plenty of states that use platforms specifically made for accessible, electronic voting to ensure these voters can vote private and independently,” Bichell told the Times-Mail. “The right to a private, independent vote is crucial to our democracy. A lot of people take that for granted. Everyone deserves to be able to participate fully in our democracy.”