A blind man’s complaint over voting accessibility prompted Kenai Peninsula election changes — but are they enough?

The City of Homer’s touch-screen, ADA-compliant voting machine. The Kenai Peninsula Borough does not have any similar equipment to help people with disabilities vote. (Photo by Renee Gross/KBBI)

Voting in the Kenai Peninsula may look different next year. The borough was forced to rethink its election process after a blind person couldn’t vote. But the man who made the complaint worries whether enough changes will be made to make voting fully accessible.

When Rick Malley went to vote in a 2015 local election, he assumed it would be easy.

“I didn’t want to have to do a bunch of paperwork,” he said. “I didn’t want to have to argue with people about my access to voting. I just wanted to vote.”

Malley is visually impaired and when the former Homer resident went to city hall, there weren’t any voting machines that could help him cast his ballot. None of them could read him the information through a headset.

Someone offered to assist by reading the ballot to him. But Malley declined, saying it was his right to vote independently. Malley never voted. Instead, he filed a complaint with the Alaska State Commission for Human Rights. 

“It was my right,” he said. “I’m a veteran. I served my country. I have the right to vote, and it’s not something I’m going to give up easily.”

The commission for human rights found the Kenai Peninsula Borough to be significantly discriminatory toward people who are visually impaired and ordered the borough to fix the problem.

The borough formed a stakeholder group that came out with recommendations to make voting more accessible. Their advice: move to a vote-by-mail-hybrid system. In this system, every registered voter would be mailed a ballot a few weeks before the election. The group also recommended having at least five locations throughout the borough with accessible voting machines. Those will open two weeks prior to the election.

But Malley was disappointed with these recommendations.  

“Well I think every town should have accessible voting,” he said. “It shouldn’t be five communities in all the communities in the borough. “

There are 28 precincts in the borough. Some already have a vote-by-mail hybrid structure. But Malley said finding transportation can be difficult for people with disabilities, especially in places like the Kenai Peninsula. Many areas have few if any public transportation options. And Malley said voting by mail doesn’t work for everyone.

“People who are dyslexic or visually impaired or just elderly and [don’t have] very good vision,” he said.

Johni Blankenship is the borough’s clerk. She provided support to the stakeholder group and said there’s a reason behind the vote-by-mail-hybrid system; voting machines that are compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act are expensive.  

“If we stay with this process, the way we currently do it, we would have to buy the ADA compliant equipment for every single polling location,” she said. “If we go to a by-mail hybrid, we only have to buy the ADA compliant equipment for the five vote centers. So there is a huge capital difference, capital cost difference.”

Once the borough staff proposes new legislation based on the stakeholder group’s recommendation, it still needs to go to the assembly for approval. 

The commission gave the borough a timeline to make voting more accessible. By mid-December, the borough must start implementing a new system.

Joyanna Geisler is the executive director of the Independent Living Center in Homer and was part of the stakeholders group.  She said the voting-by-mail system could make a huge difference for residents. 

“For example, wheelchair users in an inaccessible voting precinct– I’ve heard complaints about that,” she said.

Geisler said this stops people from voting.

“Some people just stay away and don’t even bother because it’s too difficult,” she said. “And after a while it gets old, asking for help and asking for assistance, especially for a civil right.”

As for Rick Malley, he now lives in the Boston area where he said there’s always an accessible voting machine during elections. But four years after he made his complaint, he still cares about what happens on the peninsula. He said he plans to call the commission to negotiate more locations with accessible voting machines. 

“Maybe we’ll get something different or maybe something a little bit more, more communities or something like that,” he said.

But he said he’s not surprised by the group’s recommendations.

“Civil rights for people with disabilities is only guaranteed, not by the constitution, not by the courts, but by the amount of money it costs,” he argued.

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