Digital vote-by-mail applications in most states are inaccessible to people with disabilities

The 2020 election is without a doubt going to be the biggest one in history for voting by mail, but people with disabilities may find it rather difficult to apply for their ballot, since according to an audit by Deque, most states don’t actually have an accessible digital application.

Deque, a company that helps develop accessible web applications and processes, checked each state’s process for applying to receive a mail-in or absentee ballot (they’re basically the same thing). Disappointingly, 43 of the states’ applications “had some level of digital inaccessibility.”

This could be a variety of things, but take for example an application that’s a PDF. In order to be accessible the document should be real text that can be read by a screen reader app, and the user should be able to fill in the fields necessary without printing it and grabbing a pen.

Making a single form readable and writable can probably be done in an hour or two, which is why Deque did so and offered the updated forms to each state. Georgia, Rhode Island, Ohio, Montana, Missouri, Maryland, and Kentucky all quickly accepted the offered help. Michigan and Massachusetts have accessible online processes as alternatives to the PDFs, and several states don’t require applications.

The remainder have some sort of issue. That doesn’t mean that a blind person or someone who can’t write will be totally unable to request a mail-in ballot, but it won’t be as easy as it is for many others and they may need help from another person, which isn’t always easy to get on short notice. Deque has most of the states’ forms available with accessibility updates here.

“Voting is a right. It was an easy decision for us to offer these remediated PDFs as a free public service, hopefully making it easier for all to take advantage of mail-in voting options,” said Deque CEO Preety Kumar in a press release announcing the audit.

The effort to make and keep the web — and things like ordinary government functions — accessible is a full-time one. As those in the community have noted, it’s easier and better by far to design accessibility in at the start than patch it on later.