I. In Focus This Week
Online voter registration opens up access, but not always for all
States working to make sure sites are accessible for all
By M. Mindy Moretti
As of this week, 25 states and the District of Columbia have mechanisms in place to allow new voters to register to vote and existing voters to update their information all online — no printing, no stamps, no trek to the mailbox.
By all accounts online voter registration has been wildly successful in the states where it has been introduced with statewide elections officials touting the large number of people registering and updating their information.
While online voter registration has opened up access to the process to thousands — even hundreds of thousands — of people not previously engaged, one segment of the population is being left out of the online wave — voters with disabilities.
A review by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Accessible Technology (CAT) found that of the 20 OVR sites they visited in May 2014, only one — California’s — was completely accessible in the eyes of the review.
For the report, the CAT briefly reviewed all 20 states, and did a more in-depth review of six states — California, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio and Utah. According to the report, while these six states were the only ones reviewed in-depth, the remaining 14 states showed similar access problems.
The access problems included: screen reader access, semantic organization, skip navigation, alt text, keyboard access, contrast, text sizing and scaling and tab order.
“The vast majority of states that have implemented online voter registration are inadvertently barring people with disabilities, and screen reader users in particular, from making use of this new approach to voter registration,” the report summarized.
Despite these problems, the report said most of the websites can be, “brought up to decent accessibility standards without great expense and within a fairly short period of time.”
While the results of the review may seem dim, strides are being made by several states to ensure that their sites are indeed accessible to all voters and potential voters.
“We are in the midst of communications with a number of states - and both ACLU affiliates and advocates within those states,” said Susan Mizner, one of the authors of the report.
Mizner noted that Ohio has been working with the ACLU and disability groups to create a fully accessible voter site, including having, what Mizner believes to be the first-ever information videos in American Sign Language.
And, simply because a state’s website was not list as being completely accessible, does not mean it was inaccessible either.
According to Nikki Charlson, deputy state administrator of the Maryland State Board of Elections, the review found only minor accessibility issues with the state’s site that the SBOE’s in-house tech team is currently working on correcting to release next time there is an update to the system.
“These are easy changes and we are doing them,” Charlson said. “But they weren’t an emergency fix so we worked them into our software release cycle.”
Four states — Iowa, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Vermont — have recently made headlines with the announcements of their soon-to-launch online voter registration systems. Iowa’s is set to launch on Jan. 1, 2016 and Vermont’s system should be live on Oct. 12.
“As far as I know, there has been very little coverage of any of these efforts. To the extent that other states hear about and understand that this kind of work is not only feasible, but actively being done, I think it helps secretaries of state understand that they have options…” Mizner said.
In Kentucky, Secretary of State Allison Lundergan Grimes said the system will be ready late this year or early 2016.
“The law that authorizes electronic voter registration in Kentucky only went into effect a month ago, so Kentucky's system is still in development, and we do not yet have a launch date,” said Lynn Zellen, director of communications for the secretary of state. “As always, Secretary Grimes is committed to ensuring that our elections are accessible to all Kentuckians, regardless of disability.”
A spokesman for Iowa Secretary of State said that with the site set for release in 2016, many of the accessibility aspects are still in development, but that the state does have an overall mission to ensure that all eligible electors are able to vote.
Bryan Dean spokesman for the Oklahoma State Election Board said that the state is in the very early planning stages of its online voter registration system and that accessibility will definitely be something they are considering during the development process.
The ACLU review referred to California’s site as a “thing of beauty,” that received a passing rating on all levels of accessibility. The only ding on the state’s site was a lack of email contact information if a user encountered a problem on the website — although a phone number was listed.
The site launched in 2012 and according to Jana Lean chief of the elections division in the secretary of state’s office, it took the state about nine months to develop, test and launch the application, something she says was well worth the time and effort.
The costs to ensure that the site was accessible, Lean said, were very reasonable and less than 10 percent of their total costs.
“…[W]e are extremely appreciative of the positive feedback on all of our hard work,” Lean said. “It's great to be recognized for our efforts to provide a simpler, more intuitive, user-friendly layout with improved accessibility for all of California's voters.”
Lean said accessibility was designed into the application from the beginning and the feedback her office received from disability groups was instrumental in the project’s success.
In addition to the community groups the state also worked with the California State University Accessible Technology Initiative (CSU ATI) during each phase of the project-design, development and testing.
“This feedback ensured that the application addressed a wide variety of disabilities--intellectual and cognitive; blind and visually impaired; manual and mobility; and hearing impaired,” Lean said.
As for what advice Lean would offer to the remaining 25 states still waiting for online voter registration, it would be to make accessibility part of the plan from the beginning and include community groups from the get-go.
“There are so many groups that are willing and able to provide valuable input, and that can make all of the difference,” Lean said. “We were more than pleased with the collaboration we had with our community groups in improving the online registration experience for our Californians.”
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