PANDEMIC VOTING FROM A PARTIALLY-SIGHTED PERIPHERY
I did not plan to write about my voting experience because so much has been said, but not among the general population. It’s all been in the blind community. My path as a self-advocate is up and down and most of my education comes from hindsight and self-awareness. I often feel as if I’m on the periphery. I’m able to understand some but not all. Having two impairments to varying degrees puts me in an awkward situation. I think elderly people find themselves in a similar circumstance.
WAITING IN LINE
So let me share my voting experience in 2020. The people in my small town vote at the Firehall. Because both presidential candidates have gone beyond the norm to make every effort to get voters to the polls this election, voter turnout was phenomenal. As I waited in line, I heard someone say there had been 500 mail-in votes and a steady stream of people all day. It touched my heart people wanted to make a difference and felt their vote counted.
Just a quick note here, while standing in line, I recalled two overseas travels and how I observed to varying degrees the oppression of the voting process, both times leading up to the election—in Kenya and in South Africa. People seemed anxious but determined to vote although that right threatened their very lives and livelihood. Their apprehension had a legitimate cause. If you remember the television coverage, intimidation ruled. Voting against popular opinion opened a villager up to bodily harm – a hut burning, an arm or leg cut off with a machete, acid attacks. After my visits and seeing the coverage of the violent aftermath, I had never been more convinced of the luxury of voting in the United States and vowed never to miss my opportunity to voice my opinion. I couldn’t stand indifference.
But as I waited in line observing social distance, warm winds wafted over me. Everyone seemed relaxed. The line moved steadily forward. A voting official came out and tried to suss out any of the voters who had initially wanted to mail in their ballot but changed their minds to vote in person.
INSIDE THE FIREHALL
Soon we reached the inside of the Firehall. The wait took only twenty minutes. I looked for my high school classmate as I knew she always took on this civic duty. Yes, she sat at the end of one registration table. She looked busy so I merely waved.
After I had registered, we stood in another line.
My brother saw the organizer who had come outside earlier. He told him I was vision impaired.
The man nodded knowingly and said, “We have special machines for vision-impaired individuals.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. According to what I had read, the alternate machines had an audio element. I just had to be sure I could understand the voice and tell someone in charge if I couldn’t. An official would explain how it worked to me.
When the organizer sent Mike and me in opposite lines, I figured I was on my way to the correct voting machine. I had one small predicament. The man said, “Wait over there.”
I took a few steps and stopped. “Over where?”
My voice sounded unsure and small.
Someone bodily placed me in the line I needed to be in. So I waited.
“Next?” A middle-aged woman directed me to a bar-like writing surface. She handed me a paper.
My high school friend saw me. She called out, “Do you need Mike to help you?”
Help me do what? Where was he?
The woman who gave me the paper told me to fill in the circles. “Let me know when you are done.”
I peered at the paper. It looked like the names of the offices and the candidates. Maybe this was some preliminary thing before I went to my vision-impaired booth. The first names I saw were presidential candidates.
Why it didn’t dawn on me that the paper was the actual ballot, I’m not sure. But I did as I was told, nearly hitting my nose against the paper in an effort to see the size 12 font better. I need LARGE PRINT
“Uh, I think I’m done,” I told the woman.
She took me to a machine, helped me put the paper in.
That was it.
Where was the audio? Where was the lever you pull? Or wait for a button you push? Ohhh, that was it! That was my vote! Oh goodness! I had voted as a completely sighted individual.
A voice intruded on my thoughts. “How are you and Mike doing?” It was my high school classmate.
“Uh, fine. Yeah, good. Have you been here all day?”
The clothing she wore looked elegant. She even wore an attractive necklace. But her posture and gravely voice told me she felt far from fresh after more than eight hours of work. “Yeah, just about to take a break.”
“Thank you for all you do for this town,” I said. “You work every election.”
She nodded kindly and disappeared.
I found Mike and we left the building. “Mike, I, think they forgot I was vision-impaired. Or maybe they didn’t understand. I couldn’t see the ballot very well.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
Why didn’t I? It seemed so easy. “Yeah, I shoulda said something.”
“I told ‘em you were vision-impaired.”
“I know, and I had my white cane. I … I think they didn’t understand or forgot … I needed to go to a special machine.”
He asked me who I voted for and named a few candidates from the local area.
I interrupted him. “I didn’t see the name of that candidate. I must have missed it. Oh darn. I wanted to vote for him.”
“Don’t worry. A lot of people will vote for him. He will stay in office.”
I hoped so, but that wasn’t the point.
Talking to a friend later that evening, she said, [that candidate’s name] was on the other side of the paper. You had to turn it over.”
“Oh, really? No one said anything.” Why didn’t I ask more questions?
VOTING UNDER PANDEMIC CIRCUMSTANCES
In reflecting on the entire voting process, we each made a number of mistakes. I need to advocate for myself. Being both vision impaired and hard of hearing puts a familiar situation in an uncertain light. To reiterate what others have said, ‘nothing about an election during a pandemic is familiar anyway.’
Sometimes I don’t know how to advocate for myself.
What do I really need? I thought about it. I need someone to walk me through the process from beginning to end – both verbally and physically. I need to know what to expect, not what I think will happen. I even have a writing colleague who works the polls in another area. Why didn’t I ask him what to expect? I am not pro-active enough in my journey. I trust things will ‘fall into place.’ But instead, they ‘fall apart.’
I need someone to say, “Here. Let me help you. First, you will get into this line to register. The person will check your name against a list and then you will sign where your name is on the paper. You’re familiar with this part. But this is where it changes. Because of the pandemic, the ballot is on thermal paper this year for sighted individuals. You fill in the circle next to the candidates’ names. If you can’t see them, let us know immediately. You can vote in a special machine. A voice will read each candidate’s name and you press a button who you want to vote for. I (or someone else) will take you there…” That’s really what I needed. A sighted guide to walk me through the process.
I’ve shared my voting experience to build awareness — self-awareness and civic awareness. Because there is such a continuum of sight loss, the needs of individuals will vary. It’s probably easier for a volunteer to see that a completely blind individual needs assistance than someone who has partial sight.
On the other hand, being told in advance that someone is vision-impaired and not following through on that information is an institutional problem. Once my brother told the volunteer worker that I was vision-impaired, he should have immediately ensured I had the physical and directional assistance I needed. But I need to speak up and confidently when I’m unsure about something.
When my high school classmate and friend asked me if I wanted my brother to ‘help me,’ I should have clarified what she meant by that. In her mind, her intention was clear: did I need help in reading the ballot? Because I didn’t know the form and look of the ballot had changed from past elections, I didn’t ask her what she meant. (I wonder how with all of the attention and education regarding voting during the pandemic, I didn’t know the ballot would look different)
Finally, whatever my sight issues, the other woman should have explained the candidates’ names were listed on both sides of the paper. Heck, this should have been explained even to a sighted person.
However, I can’t put the blame on the volunteers. They are real people. They tire and miss signs they should see. They don’t encounter vision-impaired people in their everyday world. I need to fill in the gaps.
My voting experience tells me I need to anticipate and advocate for my own needs in whatever situation I find myself in, not only during voting situations. That might mean talking it through in advance with a vision counselor to help me form the right questions. I leave way too many events to chance, which is why I have so many “stories.” Part of owning my blindness is being able to articulate exactly what I need and not letting myself get “lost” in the crowd. This challenges me. With my easygoing, slide-into-home-base, wipe-the-mud-off-my-clothes personality, I tend to muddle through life. In some situations, that might be okay, but not always.
Growth requires knowing how to approach various situations appropriately. I’m not a newbie. I’ve used a white cane for ten years now. Self-advocacy should be my first priority. The responsibility for making others aware does fall squarely on my shoulders. People cannot read my mind, see through my eyes, or hear through my ears.
This reflection is another step for me to take more responsibility for my life. It feels good.
What was your voting experience like during the Pandemic? Share in the comments below.
Also: A reminder about my brand new Audio
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