Last week Independence Care System (ICS) hosted Brooklyn Center for the Independence of the Disabled (BCID) for a workshop offering guidance and support to assist people with disabilities address voting and civic engagement needs and concerns during the coronavirus pandemic.

Participants attended the online workshop, “Voting and Civic Engagement during COVID-19,” which focused on obtaining absentee ballots for voting by mail, in-person voting options in New York, how to use a Ballot Marking Device (BMD) and potential  day of voting issues at polling stations.

Accessible voting for people with disabilities 

BCID Voter Engagement Advocate Chana Bleznick spoke about the importance of people with disabilities asserting their right to vote in this year’s election. Despite the coronavirus pandemic, participants noted that they feel civically engaged and are motivated to vote.

Ms. Bleznick presented a Washington Post video featuring Democratic Party lawyer Marc Elias, who discussed how states and Congress need to act now to ensure all votes count during the general election in November. Mr. Elias spoke about why mail-in ballots can be disqualified. He explained how if signatures on mailed-in ballots don’t match signatures held on file by states or counties, ballots can be discarded. Sometimes voters are not even made aware their vote did not count, he said.

Mr. Elias also said that state legislators must deal with laws that restrict the assistance or collection and delivery of completed and sealed absentee ballots. People, including those with disabilities, may not want to go outside or may be ill, and rely on friends or community organizations to deliver ballots to the post office for them. “Many states have outlawed that,” he said, calling for greater accessibility.

Voting and absentee ballots during the coronavirus pandemic

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Governor Andrew Cuomo has issued a series of executive orders for voting in New York State. All eligible voters will receive an absentee ballot application for a primary or special election on June 23.

Additionally, the special election in Congressional District 23 is not cancelled and all previously-submitted ballots will remain valid. Special elections for Queens Borough President and Council District 37 that were to take place in June are cancelled, and vacancies will be filled by vote during the November general election instead.

“Absentee ballot applications are pre-stamped, so it is free to send back,” Ms. Bleznick said. “But the actual absentee ballots are not pre-stamped and will require payment for a stamp. Democracy NYC is taking legislative action to try to make them accessible and prepaid.”

In-person voting and ballot marking devices

Ms. Bleznick said that the New York Board of Elections has compiled a list of early voting sites, and that some sites may be consolidated compared to normal election cycles, due to a concern about hiring poll workers. Participants asked about how poll sites could operate during the pandemic, and Ms. Bleznick explained that there has been no indication that in-person voting will be eliminated. “That would have to be done by an executive order,” she said.

BCID Executive Director Joseph Rappaport said that an attempt to shut down in-person voting would probably violate the State’s constitution. “It’s likely disability groups would challenge that in court,” he said.

A Board of Elections video on how to use Ballot Marking Devices, or BMDs, was presented. BMDs allow people with disabilities, including visual, manual dexterity, cognitive and other disabilities, to vote independently. The video, used to train poll workers, shows how to assist people with disabilities in using the equipment to comfortably and confidently vote.

Participants were also encouraged to report any complaints at polling sites to the Board of Election’s Twitter page, which is active. Users must have a Twitter account to report complaints. Feedback can also be shared through the Center for Independence of the Disabled, NY’s (CIDNY) website.

An informative presentation on voting and civic engagement

Following the presentation, participants thanked BCID staff for providing voting guidance and information. Participant Liza Rodriguez also inquired how she could find out if she is registered to vote.

“Visit the BOE website,” Ms. Bleznick said. “I’m certain you will be able to vote in the general election if you register now.”

View BCID’s full presentation on voting and civic engagement during the coronavirus pandemic here.