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Mail-in voting still presents obstacles for people with disabilities

FILE - Voters wait at Honolulu Hale's voter service center on Nov. 2, 2020.
Ashley Mizuo
FILE - Voters wait at Honolulu Hale's voter service center on Nov. 2, 2020.

About 1 in 5 adults in Hawaiʻi has a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Statewide Voters with Special Needs Advisory Committee began meeting earlier this year to make sure everybody in this group has the opportunity to vote.

The state’s wholly mail-in system still presents obstacles for people with special needs.

"Unless you're familiar with the kind of technology I'm talking about, it's not an obvious barrier to voting independently and privately, which is, ultimately the goal for any person," said Katie Keim, part of the committee.

Keim, who is blind, required help to vote by mail because she needs somebody to mark her ballot. Even with an electronic system, there were still challenges.

"But then I had to print it out. And I had to sign a secrecy waiver which then had no secrecy for me, no privacy," she told HPR.

These issues are common. That’s where the committee comes in. As an advisory group to the state, their goal is to ensure full access to voting for those with physical or cognitive disabilities.

"Although Hawaiʻi did a great job of making it fairly accessible, it needed to be more so," Keim said.

These past few months, Chair Pat Morrissey says the committee has been working on a survey to better gauge the needs of voters in Hawaiʻi.

"The only way to get data would be to do a survey. So we made a commitment to that," Morrissey said.

Morrissey says a survey’s scope could potentially get people in hard-to-reach places.

"Because you vote by mail, the ability to find people with disabilities is not easy, because most people, disabled or not, probably are voting by mail and using whatever help they can find to do it," Morrissey told HPR.

But it’s not just voting.

"So the ones that really face additional challenges are the ones that probably are not registered, or don't know how to register, live alone," she said.

This election year was more of a learning experience for the committee. Since they’re so new, they haven’t had the chance or resources to develop concrete recommendations for the state. But they already have some ideas.

One example is getting more information out to the public about things like electronic voting or paper ballots with larger fonts.

"We can create a community to which we can share information and success stories and challenges and make it much more, you know, a living breathing group, beyond ourselves," Morrissey added.

Sabrina Bodon was Hawaiʻi Public Radio's government reporter.
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