To understand why Regina Root cried when she filled out her absentee ballot, you first need to know where she stood four months earlier: in front of election officials, signing away her independence on a sheet of paper she couldn’t read.

The 53-year-old William & Mary college professor, who survived a rare brain surgery six years ago, now relies on a cane to detect what her eyes can’t see and technology to magnify text to a size she can decipher. That means she can’t read a standard printed ballot.

Her husband, Michael Lewis, called their local registrar’s office to let the staff know that before driving her there June 11 to cast an early vote in a local primary election.

Up until then, at the advice of her doctors, Root had taken every precaution to avoid catching the coronavirus. She canceled medical appointments. She started getting her groceries delivered. Whenever her daughter visited the family’s home in Williamsburg, Virginia, everyone remained outside, speaking from an untouchable distance. But on that day, she decided voting was worth the risk that came with entering a public building.

“We were very scared, but I really wanted to vote,” she recalls. “I wanted to have that voice. I’ve always had that voice.”

What she didn’t expect, though, was that her voice would have to come through her husband this year. When they arrived at the registrar’s office, she says, they found a helpful staff but none of the voting machines that are designed to allow people with disabilities to cast ballots on their own. Her only option, she says, was to sign a piece of paper that would give her husband permission to vote for her.



“I love my husband dearly, and I totally trust him,” she says. But people have a right to keep their votes confidential, and hers was not. “It was not independent. It was not free.”

It was not in line with what she had experienced every other time she had voted, and it left her wondering how many other people who are blind, visually impaired or have other disabilities were being forced to rely on others, including those they may not trust, to fill in ballots for them.

For most voters, the largest inconveniences this year so far have come in the form of long lines for early voting or lost absentee ballots. But those two methods of participating in the election aren’t accessible to everybody. A person who is blind or visually impaired can’t see those stickers on the ground that signal to people to stand 6 feet apart. They can’t read the print on absentee ballots to know which circles to mark and where to sign.

A look at what they have experienced across the country during a year that has seen an election with high stakes occur during a pandemic with high tolls shows frustrating waits for answers, unwanted risks taken and lots of lawsuits.

It shows that the technology exists to allow people with disabilities to electronically mark absentee ballots remotely, but their ability to actually do so differs greatly from one state to the next and sometimes from one county to a neighboring one.


“We’ve been drowning in voting litigation this year and negotiating with states,” says Chris Danielsen, a spokesperson for the National Federation of the Blind. “At last count, I think we were helping 17 of our state affiliates deal with this issue.”

Some states, such as Maryland, put systems in place years ago to allow for remote electronic marking of absentee ballots. Other states, such as Virginia and Maine, implemented a system for the first time this year. And many states still don’t have anything in place.

“If we believe as a society that it’s important to allow people to vote from home, then that should apply to blind and disabled voters just as it applies to everyone else,” says Danielsen, who used Maryland’s system to remotely fill out his ballot.

Eve Hill, an attorney for the Baltimore-based law firm that represents the federation, says the firm has participated in seven suits filed in states over voting issues this year and advocated without litigation in five states.

In Maine, a system has been in place since Oct. 1 that allows online absentee voting by voters who are unable to mark a paper ballot because of a cognitive, visual or physical impairment. The new service is a collaborative effort between the Secretary of State’s Office, the state’s online service provider, InforME, and advocates at Disability Rights Maine, which sued the state in July on behalf of four blind or visually impaired Maine voters.

The case is still active, but the parties involved have agreed to put the filing deadlines on hold to see how the new system works, said Kristin Aiello, the lead attorney for Disability Rights Maine.



In Virginia, as a result of a lawsuit filed against the Department of Elections in late July on behalf of members of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia and the American Council of the Blind, the state made its remote absentee system available to voters with disabilities in time for the general election.

Tracy Soforenko, the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Virginia, calls it a “big win.” He also describes the state’s implementation as falling short of what was needed.

He recalls one member calling from his local registrar’s office as he spoke to an employee who knew nothing about that option. That member, he says, eventually “gave up on the possibility of using a safer remote way and said, ‘I’m tired of waiting. I’m going in.’ ”

Soforenko, who lives in Arlington, Virginia, says he also encountered people who didn’t know what he was talking about when he asked about his electronic absentee ballot. But after repeated phone calls, including one in which he waited for nearly an hour, he finally received the information he needed to vote from home.

“The end result was great, but it should not require six phone calls and multiple emails to get it,” he says. “At this point, blind people are tired of waiting. We want to vote, and we want to be able to vote privately and independently.”


Naim Muawia Abu-El Hawa, a 22-year-old Fairfax County, Virginia, resident who was one of the plaintiffs in the case, says he never received the email he needed to complete his ballot remotely.

He says he waited, made phone calls and eventually asked his mother to drive him to vote early. He had missed his first chance to vote in a presidential election and didn’t want to repeat that mistake. He also didn’t want to wait until Election Day to cast his vote, he says, because he and his parents have health conditions that make them vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“I cannot thank my mother enough for being willing to take that risk with me,” he says. “If I had done this on my own, I probably would not have followed social distancing protocols – not intentionally. There were a couple of times when I was navigating with my cane independently and my mother would remind me, ‘Don’t get too close because you are getting off your marker.’ ”


When people talk about voter disenfranchisement, they often characterize it as an intentional act. But unintentional actions, or untaken ones, can also discourage people from voting, he says.

“From my point of view, I was let down,” he says. “And I don’t say that in a way that I’m trying to lick my wounds and elicit sympathy. I say that so that in the next election cycle the process will be much smoother for everyone.”


It is too late this year for states to put in place systems that give people with disabilities the same chance as others to vote with ease, safely from home. But it’s not too late for them to make a commitment to do so in time for future elections.

It’s also not too late for those of us who didn’t have to work as hard to cast our ballots to understand why they should.

Root had decided she couldn’t risk going to a polling place for the general election, and as she waited for the email containing the information she needed to electronically fill out her absentee ballot, she grew increasingly worried she might not get the chance to vote.

On Oct. 23, that email arrived, and that same day, she filled out her ballot – independently and confidentially.

The tears came soon after.

– Press Herald Staff Writer Scott Thistle contributed to this report.

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