MARIETTA - If the approximately 11,000 county residents with disabilities turn out at the polls, David Long figures elected officials and candidates will take notice.
"I really believe that if the people with disabilities in Washington County would get out and register to vote, and they actually do go out and vote ... it will grab the attention locally," said Long, an adviser to People First of Washington County, an initiative of the county board of developmental disabilities to advocate for disabled individuals.
Havar Inc., an organization that advocates and provides services for people with developmental disabilities, teamed with People First, WASCO Inc. and the Washington County Board of Elections Tuesday to hold a voter registration and outreach event at WASCO's workshop, where adults with a range of physical and developmental disabilities work in a variety of jobs.
Photo by Evan Bevins
Washington County Board of Elections director Peggy Byers, front right, explains how to use the AutoMARK voting device to Marietta resident Amber Dunn, left, and other WASCO Inc. consumers during a voter registration and outreach event Tuesday at WASCO’s workshop.
"A lot of these people here have no idea about voting. So it's an attempt to bring it down to a level they can understand and then inspire them to go out and vote," Long said. "And I believe the key to that is to help them understand that they can make a difference."
WASCO CEO Jan Powell said individuals with disabilities have a vested interest in the political process.
"Many times the decisions of the legislators affect people with disabilities," she said.
All polling places must have accessible parking and entry for voters with a disability.
There must be one assistive technology machine to help voters with disabilities cast a secret ballot.
A voter may have a family member or friend with them in the voting booth to assist in filling out the ballot. Two pollworkers from different parties will help if asked.
Any voter may apply for an absentee ballot in writing by the Saturday before Election Day. The ballot must be received by the board of elections no later than Election Day. Absentee ballots may be obtained and cast at the board office during regular business hours.
People needing a ride to the polls or other assistance voting on Election Day, or with other questions, can contact David Long at 373-7175.
Source: Havar Inc.
The event is part of a five-county initiative by Havar to reach out to potential voters with disabilities, be they physical, mental or developmental. It's funded by a $20,000 grant from the Ohio Secretary of State's office.
Marty Zinn, program manager for advocacy and public policy for Havar, said such efforts under the 2002 Help America Vote Act have helped diminish the disparity between the percentage of disabled and non-disabled residents casting ballots. In 2000, fewer eligible Americans with disabilities voted than those without disabilities by 20 percentage points. In 2008, that number was 7 percent, and it shrunk to 3 percent in 2010, Zinn said.
With HAVA requiring polling places to be accessible and training for pollworkers improved when it comes to assisting disabled voters, Zinn said many of the obstacles they face now are the result of perception.
Some people may not realize they can cast absentee ballots without having to provide a reason or can have a family member or friend assist them in filling out their ballot, Zinn said.
Tuesday's event took on the feeling of a political rally at times, with patriotic music playing. Democratic and Republican candidates for the Washington County Commission and common pleas court judge addressed the more than 50 WASCO consumers assembled about the importance of voting.
"Local government is the most responsive to you," said Ron Feathers, a Republican running for county commissioner. "They're also the ones that are most available to you."
Incumbent Commissioner Cora Marshall, a Democrat and Feathers' opponent in the general election, thanked the workers at WASCO for taking on the county's mail service, which resulted in thousands of dollars in savings.
"Your voice is so important to our county," she said.
While representatives of the county Democratic and Republican parties passed out brochures about candidates, the goal of the event was to educate people about how they can vote and the assistance available to them, not to sway someone's decision, Zinn said.
Some people might question whether individuals with mental or developmental disabilities are able to make an informed decision on the ballot, but Zinn noted everyone has the right to vote unless a court of law has specifically deemed them incompetent to do so.
"What I tell them is if you are not sure how to vote, talk to someone you trust and respect, ask them what they're thinking," she said.
That's the strategy Zinn employs with races she doesn't know as much about, such as judicial contests. She also noted people can always leave a particular race or issue blank if they don't feel they know enough to make an informed decision.
Either way, Zinn advises prospective voters to ultimately make up their own minds.
"Don't ever let anybody tell you how to vote," she said.
Peggy Byers, director of the Washington County Board of Elections, brought an AutoMARK voting machine to the event. The device, which helps people with vision problems by enlarging the type on the ballot or reading it to them, will be left at WASCO for a few days so consumers can try it out.
Byers said nine people registered to vote at the event and several others changed their addresses. A few applied for absentee ballots.