Florida, a path to accessible voting. One man’s journey of advocacy

“Why I Advocate For Voting Rights and Equality For People Who Are Blind” by James K. Kracht
“I’d like to have died,” I recently explained to a Florida reporter when recounting the story of how I became a voting rights advocate in Florida.
I am currently the Chair of FCB’S Access Committee and the Immediate Past President of the Florida Council of the Blind. I also serve on the Board of Directors of the American Council of the Blind and serve as a member of its Advocacy Services Committee.
I have been working on the accessible voting issue since 2000. I was a supervising attorney with the Miami-Dade County Attorney’s Office, and I agreed to test voting accommodations for the blind at the Government Center precinct in downtown Miami. When I signed in, by state law I was entitled to two poll worker witnesses and would need their help in the voting booth. Only one was assigned, so I asked for a second. At that point the assigned poll worker took offense.He screamed across a lobby filled with more than 200 people, “He wants another person! He doesn’t trust me.” The lobby occupants were all people that I worked with, and I would like to have died or certainly at least crawled under the nearest table. It was one of the most embarrassing experiences of my life, but it turned me into a true voting advocate for accessible voting for people who are blind. Yes, it lit the fire and I’ve been working on this, moving for improvement, changes and equal access, ever since.
We succeeded in 2002, when a law we’d lobbied for directed state election officials to work with county election supervisors and the disability community to acquire accessible voting machines in every Florida voting precinct. I landed an appointment on the Secretary of State’s first Disability Task Force on Voting, and went on to serve on Florida’s HAVA Working Group. Then I became an unpaid consultant for the state, reviewing and developing standards for accessible voting machines to be certified in Florida.
Together we were tasked with developing procedures and technologies that would allow all voters to cast a secret, independent and verifiable ballot. Last year after countless lobbying efforts in the state capital we finally achieved passage of state legislation that allowed for the certification and use of 2 accessible optical scan systems in Florida.
More than 2 years ago this work took on the dimension of the accessability of Florida’s vote-by-mail (vbm) ballots — vote by mail needed to be an option for voters are are blind without the assistance of another person. At that point I moved from a series of phone calls and discussions, to meet with the vendor of an accessible software program for absentee vote by mail software, Democracy Live. This software allows voters to vote at home, privately and independently using their computer with its screen reader or other access technology and then print and mail their marked ballots back to the election officials. Yet another journey was now underway.
Thereafter we met with the Director of the state’s Division of Elections only to learn that even though we had been told otherwise, there was no pending application for certification of any vbm system in Florida. It quickly became apparent that we would often be used as a pingpong ball in the middle ofan ongoing blame game. But, at that meeting, the director insisted that she was very interested, that she would even expedite certification, and consider using HAVA funds for the acquisition and launch of the vote by mail system. In fact, to date, July 13th, 2020, this has not happened.
I went back to the drawing board. We pressured the vendor, Democracy Live to immediately file its application for certification with the DOE. Several iterations later, I learned that the Division had pulled its certfication engineer off of the project and all had to be restarted. This meant more delay.
We were persistent with phone calls and emails, most of which went unanswered. Finally, out of frustration and pressure, I used the threat of filing a DOJ complaint (which I had first gotten permission to file from the FCB Board). This severe tactic was necessary in order to get a dialog reestarted with the Division, but I would never suggest that any advocate ever use an idle threat to get attention. One must always be prepared to follow through if one’s bluff is called. In this instance, we were, but it was absurd that we had to resort to that extreme tactic in the first instance. Unfortunately this was nly the beginning.
We kept up a constant phone and email vigil, balanced against becoming an annoying nuisance, but rememering that “the squeaky wheel gets the oil”. Finally on May 20th of this year the Certification Bureau advanced its certification report to the Division Director and the Secretary of State for signature. Again, all forward movement stalled and, 2 months later the report still awaits final signatures.
The primary and general elections were rapidly approaching so we kept inquiring about movement. Again calls were not being returned.
As is true with every advocacy effort, we continually had to develop new strategies, like asking our local chapters to contact their supervisors to push for acquisition of the accessible vbm software. Later we discovered though that many of our chapters lacked the necessary follow through, so always attack your issue on multiple fronts, and be flexible and creative as you go forward. We used tools like the DOJ complaint, pushing county supervisors, trying to maintain an ongoing dialog with the state, and eventually, because we were running out of time, deciding that we finally had to file suit.
The continual delays over the past 2 years had pushed us up against a wall, thus I contacted a disability rights lawyer and quickly ascertained a need to retain counsel and institute litigation. Because this was expensive we needed a quick and meaningful determination on the question of continuing to wait for final certification, or to sue for a mandate to certify and Fund with federal Cares money. Federal money was now needed because, with the 2 year delay in certification, there was now simply no time to separately negotiate with each of our 67 counties. Again, the DOE stopped returning calls. Time was of the essence and urgency compelled unanimous decisions from FCB’S Access, Public Education and Executive Committees, to proceed with and fund the litigation.
After chosing the court and the vehicle, the U.S. District Court of the Northen District of FLORIDA and already pending voter rights litigation, our suit to intervene was filed on June 2nd 2020. We will go to trial in midJuly. I have worked tirelessly ina trial support role doing wittness coordination and helping whereerever I could to make it easier for our attorney.
Lessons learned: When you delegate, you have to ensure that your delegation is carried out by getting the necessary feedback confirming the responses to your request for help. Sometimes, no matter how persistent you are, you just cannot shake out the correct response. In advocacy, flexibility is vitally important.
We selected 5 name plaintiffs besides FCB, to join in the litigation. Each one had a track record, and an interest in and a special circumstance behind their selection. We have played the odds, here mandating the importance of our vbm claims by now leaning on Covid 19 as additional support for vote by mail in Florida. That’s exactly what I mean by flexibility and adaptation to changing circumstances.
On the 30th anniversary of the adoption of the ADA, the Florida Council of the Blind resolved its lawsuit against the state and 67 county Supervisors of Election. Five larger Florida counties will provide accessible vote by mail as a pilot project for the November 2020 election. All sixty-seven counties will provide accessible vote by mail by March 2022. There will be a statewide taskforce to implement procedures and regulations applicable to accessible vote by mail in Florida. The county defendants also agreed to pay attorneys fees incurred by the plaintiffs for bringing the litigation.
As you set out to advocate, please remember my fundamental principles in your advocacy work: educate your target audience; build relationships, coalitions and a team; maintain a positive attitude, determination and passion; use creativity and revolving strategies; and always exhibit persistence, perseverance and repetition. This will help to make your advocacy efforts meaningful and successful.

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