Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
What some people regard as a regular nuisance, I find as exciting as a high-end shoe sale at Neiman Marcus – I'm talking about voting.
Since turning 18, I don't think I've missed one election. To me, there is something exciting about standing in line on election day and chatting with complete strangers. Taking time out of my day to participate in the process has always given me a sense of civic responsibility.
But voting as I knew it changed forever in 2009, when side effects from a surgery to mitigate symptoms of a rare gene disorder robbed me of some of my motor functions and landed me in a wheelchair. Suddenly, the seemingly simple task of going to the polls and casting a ballot seemed insurmountable. Eventually I got the hang of it and in the process gained a newfound appreciation for the people who run our elections.
With a special election underway and the midterms four months out, I was eager to learn more about the options available to the estimated 260,000 disabled people living in Bexar County.
This week I had the pleasure of meeting our county's Election Administrator Jacquelyn Callanen. She and her staff spend much of their time working to optimize registration, voting, and certification processes related to any election happening in Bexar County. That includes making the process accessible to people of all abilities.
Probably the most convenient way for a person with a disability to vote is by using an absentee ballot, which allows people in Texas belonging to one of four groups to vote by mail. To qualify you must be 65 years or older; disabled; out of the county on election day and during the period for early voting by personal appearance; confined in jail, but otherwise eligible. (Fun fact: Because of the presence of the NASA Johnson Space Center and the astronauts living in and around Houston, the Texas Legislature in 1997 passed a bill permitting residents to cast absentee ballots from space.)
Once you fill out a form and answer a few questions, you're good to go for any election in your precinct throughout the calendar year. When the time comes, the Bexar County Election Department will mail you a ballot; all you have to do is fill it out and mail it back.
But having worked in politics for about 20 years, mail-in voting just doesn't do it for me – I want to be at the polls and take in the excitement. Callanen and her staff understand this feeling, and they go out of their way to make it easier for people with disabilities to participate in the process and cast their vote at a physical voting location, regularly inspecting all polling sites to ensure they comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
Arguably the best service Bexar Elections offers is curbside voting, which is available both during early voting and on election day. If you're on your own, you can call the elections office at 210-335-VOTE to let them know where you plan to vote, and they will contact your precinct ahead of time. Once you arrive, a poll worker will meet you at your car with a portable voting machine. There are usually dedicated parking spaces for curbside voting, and Callanen said she and her staff are available to answer questions or receive feedback should anyone experience difficulties before, during, or after voting.
If you can't get to your precinct on your own, the Elections Department keeps a list of community groups who provide transportation to and from the polls, often by collaborating with Via Metropolitan Transit which provides free transportation to the polls on Election Day.
There are Braille ballots for the visually impaired and voting machines that can read a ballot out loud. The Election Department also has software available for people who request the ballot in American Sign Language.
No two disabled people are alike, and there are many different kinds of disabilities. There is no one agency or program that can anticipate every need, but it is important to try to accommodate as many people as possible. The needs of the disabled can be contrary and complex; too often this can lead to impractical solutions that may fit the bill but don't actually help anyone. But to me, success comes from making an effort, even if it's costly or arduous.
There are many reasons people don’t vote – there must be considering the low voter turn out in Bexar County. But that's not for a lack of effort on behalf of our local elections department. On the contrary, I believe Callanen and her team deserve high praise for the lengths they go to ensure that those who want to vote, can vote. In the process, they help those who might feel disenfranchised realize that they're not.
Disabled or not, those of us who vote want to be heard. The Bexar County Elections Department builds and maintains tools that allow us to do just that, and we can thank them for their hard work by going to the polls and voting.
For more information on voting in Bexar County, click here.