From the Battlefield to the Voting Booth

Ideas on how best to serve disabled veterans

By Genya Coulter, Twitter Goddess and Guest Blogger for U.S. Vote Foundation

Members of the Armed Forces understand that putting duty and country before all else requires sacrifice. For those returning from service with some form of disability, their sacrifices and that of their families follow them daily. Some have lost limbs, some are paralyzed, and many have experienced traumatic brain injuries and PTSD. Others experience hearing or vision loss. Even if a service member has voted overseas with the help of Overseas Vote or the Federal Voting Assistance Program (FVAP), sometimes voter registration and voting get put on the back burner during the process of creating a new normal stateside.

While the provisions set forth in the Help America Vote Act of 2002 ushered in many new voting accomodations for veterans living with disabilities, there is still room for improvement. Where can the election community make a positive and lasting difference for disabled American vets, present and future?

  1. Outreach: It’s not enough to go to the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) hall and set up an information booth. Many younger vets experience isolation when they return home, and if they are dealing with a disability, they don’t want to feel as if they’re a burden. Volunteering with organizations that assist service members and their families is a good start; as you get to know the vets in your community ask, “Is there something our organization can do that would make voting better and more efficient for you?” Actively listen, and then bring up their ideas in a team meeting. Outreach for disabled veterans is a joint effort, and great ideas come from many different viewpoints. 
  2. Accessibility :  Even the most American Disability Act (ADA) compliant polling place is going to have some quirks. Sometimes the polling room has optimal space for wheelchairs. But  the distance from the entrance to the polling door is a serious trek for someone using a walker, or  the security guard at the entry to the polling place may not take into account that a Vietnam vet with shrapnel, metal plates in his head, and a wooden/metal leg will be setting off every metal detector in a two mile radius. (This actually happened to one of my favorite vets during Early Voting.) If possible, ask the custodians of the location where alternate entrance/exit spots might be established. Curbside voting (under a tent in case of bad weather) is also a great option. Or if that doesn’t work, have staff (armed with a clipboard, forms, and a pen) ready to go to a voter.
  3. Absentee: Vote By Mail is a great option for those who may not have transport to a polling place, or who are still adjusting to being home. However, make sure the disabled vets in your community have the opportunity to update their signature on their voter record! Let’s be honest…a vet outfitted with a prosthetic hand or who has bones in their hand fused is going to have a change in their signature. Again: ask the vets in your community if they would like to update their signature, and make the steps for doing so convenient.
  4. Technology: Sometimes paper ballots are not an option. Insisting that every election should exclusively rely on hand counted paper ballots is incredibly insensitive to paralyzed or blind vets. Audio ballot machines are still the best voting option available for veterans living with severe disabilities. Voting independently is empowering…having to constantly request ballot assistance is something for which many veterans are too proud to ask. Encourage election technology vendors to provide better and more secure voting options for disabled voters. And make sure voters know that there ARE options available.
  5. Design: Some ballot layouts make it very difficult for the visually impaired to read. Others might look scrambled to vets who have experienced a traumatic brain injury and are processing words on a page differently than before. There are civic design firms who are enthusiastic about creating streamlined, easy to comprehend ballots for both in-person and Vote By Mail applications. And it’s not just ballots: Websites now require ADA compliance and an audio option for voters online is essential. Also, PDF formats aren’t necessarily ADA compliant...but disabled- friendly formats do exist!
  6. Beyond Compliance:  Nobody wants to be thought of as a statistic, inconvenience, or a burden. Polling places, vote centers, and election offices should be a place where voters feel empowered and independent. Having a few veterans with different physical concerns present while setting up a vote center or polling place can make a huge difference. Asking the public transportation authority if they can assist a group of vets who need to go to the election office or polling place isn’t a bad idea, either.

This issue is personal for me. I work with disabled veterans in my community, and my heart breaks when they tell me about the negative experiences they’ve had while voting. Those who have served America deserve to have a say in their government, and proactively ensuring that their unique voting needs are being met and adjusted accordingly is a small way that the election world can say “Thank You”.

Do you know a disabled veteran who needs to register to vote or would like to request an absentee ballot? Visit U.S. Vote Foundation, www.usvotefoundation.org, to get started.