Voting in your pajamas is great.
Now let’s make sure everyone can do it.
We do everything online from sharing baby pictures (eating first carrots!) to finding our dream vacation, to banking. We want voting to be just as easy.
That’s why vote by mail — or voting at home — is gaining so much momentum: It’s convenient. You can return your ballot by mail, drop it off at a free drop box, or just use it for practice and go into a vote center to vote. For many people, the biggest convenience is having the time to think calmly about the candidates and ballot questions.
Voting from home works. It increases turnout, with jumps of 3%, 5%, even 15%, especially among younger voters and communities with historically low participation. Three states — Oregon, Washington, and Colorado — are entirely vote-at-home with Utah and California in transition. They represent some of the most engaged voters in the country. All of this is great evidence that making it easier to register to vote and ensuring easy access to vote by mail is a winning combination.
But as we move to voting at home, we can’t leave people behind. Like people who can’t mark a paper ballot privately and independently because they have a disability. This isn’t just the right thing to do. It is also a legal requirement. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) says that the voting system must enable people with disabilities to vote independently and privately. Not “go to a vote center or polling place to vote,” but vote. That means that there must be accessible voting in all ways of voting: early voting, election day voting, and voting at home.
Luckily, there’s an answer, already in use in several states: remote accessible ballot marking systems. Here’s how they work. You:
- Download your blank ballot
- Use your own technology to make your selections
- Print and verify a paper ballot
- Sign the voter’s declaration, and seal the ballot in an envelope
- Return by mail, at a free drop box, or directly to the elections office
Here’s what it’s not: voting on the Internet. Or doing anything that sends any information about you and how you voted over the Internet, including web forms, email, or anything else. We’ll probably vote online one day. But that day has to wait until we have an Internet that we can trust.
Here’s another thing it’s not: new or unproven. There are ways to do remote accessible voting well, so that it’s secure, something voters can use easily, and works for election administration.
Oregon, the pioneer state for having all voting by mail, has what they call the alternative format ballot. When it started, the state mailed voters a floppy disk. Now, they get their ballot from the MyVote page on the OregonVotes website. The key is that after they have downloaded the ballot, everything happens locally, on their own computer. No Internet connection needed.
As California adopts the new Voter’s Choice Act, counties are required to have an option that meets the state’s rigorous requirements for security and accessibility. It shouldn’t have to take lawsuits (as there were in Maryland, Ohio, and California). Why do we need a judge to tell us what we already know is the right thing to do?
Principles for remote ballot marking systems
And we know the right way to do it. A few years ago, we assembled a group of experts to explore how to make remote ballot marking systems both secure and accessible. Our goal was to propose general principles for design and development that could be incorporated into federal standards for remote ballot marking systems.
Not only can the requirements for accessibility and election integrity co-exist, they can support each other. You can read the principles and full report on the Center for Civic Design website, along with a reading list of the reports, usability testing, and accessibility issues that informed our work.
Here’s the list of principles:
- Trusted and transparent
- Consistent with other voting options
- Access for all voters
- Minimizes privacy and security risks
- Supports accurate and secret ballot marking
- Enables easy review, printing, and packing of the ballot
- Supports election administration procedures
- Tested for usability for all voters
- Robust and reliable
Each principle is broken down into guidelines. These map to requirements in the federal voting system standards, like requirements that the system can be used by voters with disabilities.
Other guidelines are specific to the needs of voting at home. Without going too far down into the weeds, here are a few of the guidelines for each phase of voting:
Downloading the ballot. These guidelines say that a remote ballot marking system should offer voters alternatives for how to get the ballot, to minimize the difficulty and allow each voter to use the method that works best for them. Voters’ ability and willingness to use technologies varies.
Principle 4 builds on this flexibility with a focus on privacy and security. It suggests that voters be authenticated to the ballot they return, not when they download the ballot. This may seem backwards, compared to voting in a polling place, but there is no reason to require personal information to download a ballot. After all, in voting at home, it’s not the blank ballot that counts, but the one returned and cast.
Marking the ballot. These guidelines match most closely to the general voting system requirements, ensuring that voters can review their ballot before and after printing, and that the ballot is designed to be used by voters with their own technology, including assistive technologies. That includes a paper ballot designed to be read through personal OCR tools by voters who cannot see the print.
Return the ballot to be cast. There are even guidelines to help voters who need assistance to pack up the ballot to return it by managing the order of the printed pages, helping voters with visual disabilities keep their ballot secret.
During the project, there was a lot of lively discussion about why it is important to make accessible remote ballot marking available to any voter. The conclusion was that this way of voting should be designed to be used by all voters as a matter of policy. It makes election administration easier. And it’s the right thing to do.
- Voting at home increases turnout, but we have to make sure that everyone can participate, including voters with disabilities.
- We can’t send marked ballots across the Internet we’ve got today
- There are ways to do remote ballot marking that is accessible and do it well
Want to know more?