Elections 2021 Special Edition

Independent Perspective In-Depth - Elections 2021 Special Edition

BJ Stasio and Sophia Roberts of the Self-Advocacy Association of NYS talk with Ernie Churchwell about accessible voting for people with disabilities

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Host:  Welcome to Independent Perspective In-Depth, a program presented in the public interest by the Western New York Independent Living (WNYIL) family of agencies, courtesy of the Niagara Frontier Radio Reading Service (NFRRS). Using this long format, we'll be exploring the broader issues affecting the community of people with disabilities in discussions with knowledgeable individuals from a variety of organizations and backgrounds. We're delighted to have as our guests for today Sophia Roberts, Western Regional Coordinator and BJ Stasio, Board President of the Self Advocacy Association of NYS (SANYS). I'm your host Ernest Churchwell, welcome to the program Sophia and BJ.

Guest:  Thank you. Good morning Ernie, nice to see you.

Host:  It's our pleasure. Well, I understand you'll be speaking about a larger community effort involving some partner organizations. First please explain what the Self-Advocacy Association of New York State or SANYS does and whom it serves?

Guest:  Well Ernie, I’ll take that one if that's okay with Sophia. We serve people with developmental disabilities all throughout New York State (NYS) to learn to speak up and advocate for themselves. We help them with speaking at legislative hearings and such, you know, giving them the skills to speak up for themselves and others.

Host:  All right, although you have a statewide position BJ, you're both from the Western Region of SANYA. What counties does that include and how many other regions are there in the Empire State?

Guest:  I can take that one if that's okay BJ.

That's okay. Go ahead.

We cover Erie County, Niagara County, Orleans County, Genesee, Allegheny, Chautauqua and Cattaraugus in the Western Region. And then there are seven regions throughout the Empire State. We have the Finger Lakes part of the Western, Central, Capital, Hudson Valley, New York City, Westchester and Long Island.

Host:  Wow, that sounds like quite the organization. When you all get together in a common effort, I imagine that you are a force to be reckoned with.

Guest: I would hope so, Ernie.

Host:  Oh, right, now getting to the business at hand. While many people's minds have been on the elections of this time of year, SANYS is one of multiple community organizations that works throughout the year to encourage all citizens to participate in the electoral process, namely in the Get Out the Vote Task Force, how does it carry out its mission?

Guest:  Well, we carry out that mission by we created a collaborative effort with many organizations. And Sophia can help me with the list of organizations that have joined the group, it's truly a statewide effort to make this happen because we can’t all make change separately. We have to do it together. So, a few of them are the League of Women Voters of Buffalo Niagara and Office for People with Developmental Disabilities.

Host:  I believe you also have WNYIL and the Erie County Office for People with Disabilities.

Guest:  Thank you very much, Ernie, that's correct.

BJ started this taskforce a couple years ago, and we've been meeting, we meet quarterly, and then when there's an election, we meet more frequently over Zoom, we've been doing it.

Host:  Terrific. Well, to get into the meat of things, a number of other states have worked to pass laws making it more difficult to vote under the name of asserting they seek to curtail the fraudulent voting of 2020, something that observers on both sides of the political aisle found no evidence whatsoever that it even occurred. As there is no impulse in NYS for this kind of restriction, social media is being used for a more subtle approach, fake news, or in groundless rumors that are posted that seem designed to discourage potential voters with disabilities from even making the effort. You and your partners in the task force debunked each of several malicious myths at a recent press conference. As we now have the time, we'd like to examine each of these. Myth number one, off year local elections are not important.

Guest:  For me Ernie on a personal level, local elections are important because when you vote in your local election, it helps create that community that all people with disabilities should have by getting the elected officials in office which support what we want as a community and what we need. So, every election is important because every vote matters, every time there's an election, you should vote because without our voice, it's not a true inclusive community.

One of the things we've learned in our in our task force is that people talk about the electoral college but that only relates to the President. Other elected office is popular vote. So I think that kind of speaks to what BJ is saying and you know, local elections, the mayor, the sheriff, all the other councils and the local politicians that has to do with a lot of the issues that are really important to people like sidewalks and snow removal and the condition of our neighborhoods and our streets and how the money that the federal government gives us and the state is spent. So those really local elections and who's in office really impact our everyday lives.

Host:  I've heard it said also that you're getting to know candidates that will be in other positions in the future that today's town councilman will be tomorrow's county legislature and the next day's state assembly person in the following days House of Representatives person so you're learning who they are from the ground up and deciding who it is, is really worthy of these higher offices.

Guest:  I want to point out something really quick Ernie you are correct. And as you do that, develop the relationship with them when they're in those small positions and move up. They'll remember you and remember the issues you brought up and carry it through. So please speak to your elected officials. Whether you voted for them or not. Because they work for you.

Host:  Good point. And as the saying goes it's nice to have friends. Okay. Moving on to the next myth. Voting is just too hard, especially for those with disabilities or other challenges.

Guest:  Oh, look, voting is hard. Most times Ernie it's mostly by community perception and even the perception of the poll workers. If I could tell a really short story, every time I go to vote the poll workers do not talk to me. They talk to the person with me because they think I can't talk for myself. So, it's easy for them to talk to somebody who appears not to have a disability rather than talk to me. So that's what makes it hard and makes it discouraging to vote. Not only sometimes do the machines not work, but it's the perception of the community. That we don't have a voice that our vote doesn't matter. But we do. And even if we use augmentative communication devices, that's our voice. That's what matters. We all have a voice.

Host:  Yes. Interestingly you remind me of a famous story in a book called Butterflies are Free where a noted blind author reported going to the hospital where the charge nurse kept asking the orderly who brought him in, what does he want? What can he do and eventually the fellow whose name escapes me said he can talk for himself, he speaks English.

Guest:  Yes. You know, it's so you kind of think like, oh, after all this time, but obviously people still need to hear and see people with disabilities, you know, out there doing things and get used to the fact that people do speak for themselves, and there are a lot of different ways to vote. And people with, people like yourselves like Independent Living Center and self advocacy and lots of different organizations have been fighting to say, hey, we need an absentee ballot. We need an absentee ballot that is accessible to screen readers so we can do it that way. We need early voting so we don't only have just one day when we can go vote. We need to have on the ballot this year, is a thing saying authorizing NYS to make absentee ballots available to anyone, you don't have to prove that you have a disability or that you're out of town. Anyone can use an absentee ballot. And another thing that's on the ballot this year is allowing NYS to accept voter registrations closer to voting date instead of 23 days in advance. You can register many states have it where you register right there, right when you go to vote. So there are a lot of efforts to make voting easier for people and more accessible to more people and to me, I feel like you know as an ally, like I want to use those because that's a lot of hard work that everybody put in to making that accessible and I love voting, you know to me, soon as I could vote, I did.

Host:  Bravo.

Guest:  And anybody can use the accessible machines not just those with disabilities, everybody should use it, because the more we use it, the better the machines will be in the future, let's hope.

Host:  BJ you went and read my mind because myth number three was accessible voting machines also known as ballot marking devices are only for people with disabilities. And you just want ahead and said that is not so. But so, let me move on to myth number four, accessible mount voting machines are only found at certain locations or too difficult to use. What do you say about that?

Guest:  They are, they should be at all voting locations and if they're not working, or something like that you should call and if they're not in an accessible position for someone to use because sometimes the Board of Elections drop them off but the poll workers move them sometimes because they think that would be a better spot, but the reason why they're in that spot is so it's accessible to everyone. So, you know, and they're there for you to use, for the community to use because you don't know if somebody has a disability. So, you can't say only someone with an obvious disability can use it. Everybody should use it, because the more we use it, the better the machines will be in the future.

Host:  Very good. And speaking of the machines, considering we’ve been just talking about the accessible ballot marking devices, I'd like to look at those machines in greater detail. There are two models being used in the Empire State and I think they're in essentially every polling place in NYS. What are the two makes being used and what counties use them?

Guest:  Erie County uses the AutoMark and the rest of the state uses the ImageCast, correct Sophia?

Yes they use the AutoMark I think in one other county in NYS, but it's either the AutoMark and the ImageCast and you’re right Ernie by law, every single polling place legally has to have one of those an ImageCast or the AutoMark.

Host:  Great. And something that many people are probably not aware these machines have particular adaptations for people with physical or visual limitations. What are they?

Guest:  Yes, well, I would add not just for physical or visual limitations, but for reading people with reading or tracking disabilities as well. The machines are out for adaptation. So, for example, there's headphones, so if you're blind or if you don't read for whatever reason, it reads the ballot to you. There are a Sip and Puff (SNP) switch for quadriplegics. So, if you don't use your hand or for someone with CP or something like that, that doesn't use their hands, they can use a SNP. There are hand adaptations so that you can use the touchscreen with something that you hold in your hand. So, there are a number of ways, it's made to make it so that really anyone regardless of their abilities can vote.

Host:  Great, and something that has been talked about a great deal in the news for the current election is that certain candidates are write in candidates that people are told to write in because they weren't able to get on the formal ballot beforehand. Can the ballot marking devices accept a write in vote?

Guest:  Yes, yes, indeed Ernie and the ladies of the League of Women Voters of Buffalo Niagara and myself participated in a training to learn how to do the write in because I honestly did not know that the machines were capable of doing the write in. So, I learned that during the training and I'm very appreciative to the Erie County Board of Elections for throwing that together with our group. That was very important training. And it's and if you don't know and if you want to write somebody in ask for assistance on how to get to that point, because if you want to write in somebody, if you want to write in Superman, write in Superman.

Host:  (Laughter). Okay, well, since he's not a native of this planet, I don't know that he would be acceptable in any elections, but who knows. Any case according to the respective manufacturers, namely, Election Systems & Software, or ES&S for the AutoMark, and Dominion Voting System for the ImageCast. Both of these current models are nearing the end of their functional life and will soon no longer be supported. So that means there's a task to be done what are interested persons with disabilities called upon to do at this point?

Guest:  Well ask your elected officials to ask the State Board of Elections to release the money so that counties can purchase the machines that they feel will be most effective in our communities and when those machines come, ask, the disability community needs to ask you to test them to make sure that they're the right machine. So, don't assume that they're correct. Always test because I remember 15 years ago, when the AutoMark came out in Erie County, I was a member of the original test team. That's how long they have been out. So, test them make sure they work. Even though we've been talking to Erie County forever on what machines might work but ask your legislators to ask the State Board of Elections to release the money because we need the new machines because they're breaking down and I would hate to see somebody give up on their vote. Just because the machine that's supposed to be there for them didn't work.

Host:  Quite well said and WNYIL a few years back was part of an effort along with University of Buffalo Center for Assistive Technology in a grant to help get more truly useful assistive devices for people with disabilities to the marketplace. And it was startling how many devices to be tested essentially were wonderful only in the mind of the inventor and not of the end user. So, you definitely have to check out what the devices will do. Has there been a timeline established for discontinuing of the old machines? Or is that not been announced yet?

Guest:  Not been announced yet. But I keep pushing, pushing the needle asking for when and I hope to get the answer soon. Because we all need to know so we can be well educated voters.

Host:  Great, let's see, it's been long enough that I should give a little note to our listeners. If you've just joined our program, you're listening to Independent Perspective In-Depth, a program presented in the public interest by WNYIL. Our guests are Sophia Roberts, Western Regional Coordinator and BJ Stasio, Board President of the SANYS. We’ll continue exploring the impressive work of this comprehensive organization. Continuing our examination of the social media myths that seemed designed to discourage voters with disabilities from voting. Myth number five, absentee ballots are not counted.

Guest:  They are counted. All votes are counted because all votes matter. So don't think they do and, you know, if you're not sure, call up the Board of Elections and make sure because then you know what, you're right as a citizen to do that, because our Board of Elections work for all of us in our communities. So, I would encourage if you have questions, call your local Board of Elections.

Host:  And just as a matter of record, there's another type of ballot that must be counted before the official tallies are racked up for the formal record. Who uses those absentee ballots?

Guest:  It's mostly a military service, people who serve our country, so we're guaranteed our votes.

Host:  Well, they should certainly be heard in elections, I dare say. And there are times that I've heard of elections not being officially called until all the absentee ballots are accounted for. So however, you vote, it is important to do so. Okay, moving on to myth number six. People with disabilities who need assistance cannot speak or vote for themselves. And now that strikes me as wrong because if people are guaranteed a truly private ballot, they certainly should be able to speak for themselves. What do you say about that myth?

Guest:  Oh, that myth is one of my big things because like I said, every time I go to vote, the poll workers talk to the person with me so that gives the impression that I don't have a voice. But as I always tell the story, my first real advocacy was my choice to vote. That's why it's important to me. That was my first real feel of advocacy, the first choice I made as an individual, not as an individual with disability, but as an individual citizen, who could help elect my elected officials that I chose. Now they might not have won but at least my voice was heard, and all our voices need to be heard. So, don't think your voice doesn't matter, because it does to SANYS and it does to the Get Out the Vote Task Force.

Host:  Great. And of course, if an accessible ballot marking device is set up properly, the user ought to be able to cast the vote in privacy, and be able to get wheelchairs, walkers and other things where they need to be to use the device. And that's a necessary part of the process. Speaking of which, that suggests that not all polling place volunteers know how to deal with people with disabilities so that their rights are respected, and their privacy is too. Do you have any suggestion for polling place volunteers as to what they should do?

Guest:  Just treat us like a normal human being, like a normal person coming up to vote. Just because we have a disability doesn't mean we should be treated differently. Because we all have the right to vote. Some might need more assistance than others, but we all need assistance with something. We're all truly interdependent on each other to make this world work. So just remember that.

Host:  Terrific. Oh, go ahead Sophia.

Guest:  Yes, I was just going to say that if people don't understand something, or they ask you a question, don't treat them like they're stupid because they may need clarification. They may have something in the way of their comprehending what's going on and treat them with respect, explain it, and if they refer to their support person that's with them, that's up to them whether they want their support person to help them or not. So, respect that they may need a little more assistance and treat them as a fully functioning adult like you would anybody else.

Host:  Well said, besides busting myths, what other efforts is the Get Out the Vote Task Force making to encourage full participation in the electoral process?

Guest:  Well on the city's website we have a whole bunch of material available to assist with your voting questions or your voting concerns. So, I would go to the website and look that information up because it's very valuable information we have information from Disability Rights in New York from all the organizations, which are part of the Get Out the Vote Task Force. So, go look at the website. Do you have anything else Sophia?

Yes, we've got a thing you can print out for your voting plan. And we have you know, because of a lot of the people members of SANYS work with support staff, or parents or other people that they get support from, we have documents for staff to help their support staff know what is proper and improper and enforce their right to go support them to vote. That it's their right to do that and that the staff should support them to vote. There's also we also been doing video webinars and in the Zoom meetings, educating people so we host Zoom meetings and then we've been doing some webinars with the League of Women Voters and NAACP, all about what's on the ballot or different aspects of voting. So those have come out of that task force as well.

Wow, we've done that much work, how time flies! (Laughter)

Host:  Terrific. Well, we're nearing the end of our allotted time, but some listeners are bound to have questions. How can they contact you folks?

Guest:  Sophia, do you want to give the address for the website?

Sure, so you can go to our website. If you happen to be listening to this outside of the Western Region, you will find your regional coordinators for those regions on the website. The website is sanys.org and you can find all of our contact information there you can email us at western@sanys.org and you can call us at 716-560-9307. And, you know for those who are interested in joining, we host meetings weekly and everyone is welcome. Our task force if you're interested in the task force, we welcome your participation.

Host:  BJ and Sophia, thank you so much for being with us and sharing this exciting outreach to people with disabilities.

Guest:  Thank you. Thank you so much Ernie.

Host:  You've been listening to Independent Perspective In-Depth, the program presented in the public interest by the WNYIL family of agencies, courtesy of the NFRRS. Our guests for today were Sophia Roberts, Western Regional Coordinator and BJ Stasio, Board President of the SANYS. This program features the song "A Little Ditty on the Dance Floor" by Jay Lang, available under Creative Commons Attribution noncommercial license. I've been your host Ernest Churchwell. If you wish to hear this program again a couple days after the on air broadcasts, you can find a podcast on the NFRRS webpage nrradioreading.org on the Programming tab under Bonus Programs, and also on wnyil.org under Public Relations/Podcasts and eventually on nine other major podcasting sites around including Audible, Google, Spotify, In Touch, Apple, iTunes, and several more. So, there are many opportunities where you can hear this program again. So, we wish everyone thanks for tuning in. Have a good week and be safe.