Rhode Island’s lawmakers are celebrating the signing of a new online voter registration law. But Rhode Island is hardly the first state to let people register online — in fact it’s the 36th (including Washington, D.C.).
So what’s special about Rhode Island? It is the first state to say, in writing, that voters with disabilities must have full and equal access to online voter registration.
One in five voters has a disability, so this is no small issue.
More and more of our business is conducted online, and it’s great that our voting system is beginning to catch up to our modern lives. But online registration — already in the majority of states — threatens to leave lots of voters out.
People who are blind or low-vision, people who can’t use a mouse or keyboard, and people with cognitive or learning disabilities would all have trouble using a website that was not set up to be accessible. In fact, a 2015 report by the ACLU and the Center for Accessible Technology found that only one state (California) had a fully accessible online registration site. Lots of states didn’t even meet basic accessibility standards.
To address this problem, Rhode Island legislators wrote these key provisions into their new online voter registration law:
- Experts on disability access to websites must be included in the development of the site and must verify that the site is useable for people with disabilities before it is made public.
- The site must follow certain accessibility standards set by the by the World Wide Web Consortium (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 compliance level AA for you tech geeks).
- The site must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires all state and local governments to provide equal access to government programs and communications with the public.
This is a precedent-setting step, and other states should follow Rhode Island’s lead.
But states should not stop there. Online registration can be a way to bring more people into the political process, but only if it’s done right. For instance, lots of states are requiring people to have a driver’s license or a nondriver ID to register online — and we know ID requirements are barriers to voting for poor people and people of color. Some states are not translating their websites into languages other than English, and others are failing to optimize their sites for mobile devices.
As we bring voting into the modern age, we need to make sure we don’t create new barriers or reaffirm old ones. The future is for everyone.