Puerto Rico is a Caribbean United States territory and is included in U.S. national laws, including the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). HAVA was passed in 2002 to improve election procedures to make them more accessible for persons with disabilities.
Over the last twelve years, the Puerto Rico Electoral Commission (Comisión Estatal de Elecciones, CEE) has worked to implement HAVA accessibility requirements with support from the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). Notable projects have included establishing Easy Access voting locations (Colegios de Fácil Acceso) and creating a Vote by Phone system for a major election held in 2012. These successes offer valuable insights for implementing new laws on inclusion and accessibility.
Requirements of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA)
- Polling stations that are easy for persons with disabilities to enter, exit, and use
- At least one accessible voting method at every polling station
- The ability for voters with disabilities to vote independently and in private
- Accessible information about polling stations and how to register to vote
- Trainings for election officials, poll workers, and volunteers on election accessibility
In Puerto Rico, a territory of the United Sates, much of the law’s requirements were met by creating Easy Access voting locations and installing a Vote by Phone system.
Establishing Easy Access Voting Locations (Colegios de Fácil Acceso)
Before the election, the Puerto Rico Electoral Commission (Comisión Estatal de Elecciones, CEE) set up more than 1,500 “Easy Access” voting locations. Besides being located in physically accessible buildings, each Easy Access center was equipped with assistive devices and materials to support voters with disabilities, including tactile ballot guides in braille and the new Vote by Phone system.
Poll workers at these locations were also trained on electoral accessibility.
The CEE coordinated with disability communities to create a public outreach campaign for the Easy Access locations, which included a television spot.
Through the campaign, Puerto Ricans with disabilities were asked to pre-register to attend the Easy Access locations so that the CEE could ensure that there were enough supplies for each station. The CEE later decided that persons with disabilities who had not pre-registered by the deadline could still transfer from a “regular” voting location to an Easy Access location in order to ensure that all voters had the access they needed.
Vote by Phone System
To meet HAVA’s requirement for a voting system accessible to people with disabilities, the CEE implemented a Vote by Phone system for the 2012 election. This system allowed persons who were blind, had low vision, or had low literacy skills to cast their ballots by telephone at polling stations.
The CEE set up contracts with reliable vendors to install the phone system in 1,533 electoral units across the island at the Easy Access voting locations. All four ballots for the 2012 election were made available on the phones.
There were some logistical challenges to setting up the Vote by Phone system. For example, not all Easy Access voting locations were identified in time to adequately prepare for the Vote by Phone system. Additionally, in some places, the phone equipment did not arrive, or the phone system was not set up even if it did arrive. The CEE has received this feedback and will work to fix these issues in the next election.
Recommendations for Implementing a New Law
The most important steps that the CEE took to implement the new law in Puerto Rico include:
- Researching the different types of resources available. The CEE investigated different types of accommodations for voters with disabilities that could be used.
- Planning ahead. The CEE began their work many months before Election Day. They needed time to research solutions, find vendors, and train their staff.
- Providing training for their staff and volunteers. The CEE provided trainings so that everyone understood how to use the accessibility equipment and why it was important to do so.
- Working with the disability community. The CEE worked with the disability community to figure out the best accommodations for Puerto Rico, and to create accessible campaigns.
- Using feedback to improve the implementation of the law. After every election, the CEE uses feedback to improve their accessibility services for the next election.
The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) is a global leader in promoting democracy and good governance and supporting the right of all citizens to freely participate in electoral processes. Since 1998, IFES has worked to include persons with disabilities in its work, leading to the creation of www.ElectionAccess.org, an international online clearinghouse of information on disability rights and political participation. IFES has also published a manual linked below entitled Equal Access: How to Include Persons with Disabilities in Elections and Political Processes.