By Patricia LeBoeuf, Bennington Banner
BENNINGTON — Transportation issues, a lack of interpreters and general frustration with the voting system are some of the barriers that people with disabilities and mental health issues face when voting, according to participants in a focus group Wednesday.
Disability Rights Vermont, a statewide advocacy agency, hosted the focus group, called Barriers to Voting for People with Disabilities & Proposed Solutions, at the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House.
The approximately 10 attendees spent most of the about two-hour meeting discussing voting rights in Vermont, along with barriers to voting on a local and national level, and potential solutions to those barriers.
Merry Postemski, senior investigator with Disability Rights Vermont, told the group that the meeting is one of multiple focus groups being held across the state. Input from the focus groups will be put into a public report.
Postemski began the meeting by explaining Vermont’s voting requirements: voters must be registered to vote, Vermont residents, U.S. citizens and 18 years old or older at the time of the election. Vermonters can register to vote even if they are homeless, she said.
Referencing an audience member’s statement that she had a criminal history, Postemski emphasized that in Vermont, “if you have any kind of criminal conviction, you can vote.”
Those who have a guardian, are in the hospital or are incarcerated can also vote in Vermont, she said.
Lynn Mazza, a peer advocate counselor at Vermont Center for Independent Living, added that Vermont has adopted automatic voter registration.
The state’s new automatic voter registration system went into effect in January 2017, and allows voters to register automatically when they receive or update their driver’s licenses or other forms of identification at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Mazza asked Postemski about the “question of competency” as it relates to voting as that has come up recently in her work in nursing homes — “Somebody expressed her excitement to vote for Reagan.”
Postemski replied that the only way a person’s right to vote can be taken away in Vermont is by a judge’s order.
Barriers to voting
The group brought up multiple barriers to voting, some specific to those with disabilities and some not.
One woman, who identified herself as deaf, said one barrier can be not having an interpreter at the polling place.
Mazza mentioned transportation to the polls as something she encounters, along with people not being aware that they can request absentee ballots.
“Can I say knowledge?” added another man. “Knowing what people stand for?”
Audience members also mentioned the electoral college system of voting, in which candidates who win the popular vote are not guaranteed to win the election, and the “negative results” of recent elections as reasons why people may not vote, or choose not to vote.
Postemski said that input from focus groups will be used to look at short-term goals that her organization can advocate for, and also inform long-term goals as well.
Accessibility in voting itself was also mentioned.
Postemski said she wanted to impress upon those present that they have many voting options, including voting early at the town clerk’s office and requesting an absentee ballot, which can be done in multiple ways, including online, calling and sending a form to the town clerk.
Mazza asked if someone who doesn’t read well can have someone come in to the polls with them to help them. “Absolutely,” Postemski replied. “[And] you don’t have to give any reason why you want that help.”
She added that the only restriction is that the accompanying person can’t be the voter’s union representative or employer.
One woman added that she has never voted before — and “a lot of the stuff, I don’t understand what it means.”
A lot of things have to do with knowledge and education about voting, Postemski added.
“For someone who’s never voted before it can be a very intimidating process,” she said.
Toward the end of the discussion, Postemski asked the group what suggestions they had for solutions for the barriers to voting mentioned.
One woman mentioned having connections to the deaf community, through social media, and added that it would be nice to have debates broadcast with interpreters.
In regards to transportation issues getting to the polls, one audience member suggested a car pool for the current volunteer driving efforts, to address concerns about safety. Another suggested adding more public buses on voting day.
Postemski asked about solutions for another problem some people may have — simply forgetting the date of elections.
One man said that state agencies could put up signs that list the date of upcoming elections, and add phone numbers of groups to contact for more information.
“Just to get the message out,” he said. “Social services, the DMV, places like that.”
Cassandra Barbeau, Bennington town clerk, added that people call her office each year, thinking their absentee ballot is still valid, when in reality, absentee ballots require reapplication each year.
“I encourage people to put it on their calendar in January,” she said.
At the end of the meeting, Barbeau also briefly walked the participants through sample ballots for this year, including presidential, local and school district elections.
She clarified that these are exact copies of the ballots voters will receive.
The focus group was funded through the Help America Vote Act of 2002 and a contribution from the Vermont Secretary of State, Elections Division, according to a flyer announcing the event.
Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.