ATLANTA — Not that long ago, Ann Byington had to squeeze into a voting booth with a Republican poll watcher on one side and a Democrat on the other reading her voting choices out loud so her ballot could be marked for her and the selections verified.
Blind since birth, Byington welcomed the rise in recent years of electronic voting machines equipped with technology that empowered her and others with disabilities to cast their ballots privately and independently.
But now, as election officials plan a major vote-by-mail expansion amid fears of voting in person during the coronavirus pandemic, Byington worries she is being left out. When the presidential primary in Kansas was held entirely by mail last month, the 72-year-old Topeka resident had to tell her husband how she wanted to vote so he could fill out the ballot for her.
"I'm back to where we started," Byington said. "I've lost all my freedom to be independent, to make sure it's marked how I want it to be marked."
In recent weeks, advocates for the blind have filed legal actions in Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania seeking access to systems already in place to deliver ballots electronically to military and overseas voters. Blind voters could then use their own computers and assistive technology to read and complete their ballots themselves.
"This is about equality," said Chris Danielsen with the National Federation of the Blind, one of the groups suing. "If a secret ballot is important to you, it's important to a blind person, as well."
Because of these efforts, all three states agreed to make electronic ballots available during the primaries to voters with disabilities, and more actions are likely before November.
Voting technology experts have raised security concerns about such Internet-based voting systems. They also warn about implementing a new process so close to an election, risking the same sort of problems that derailed this year's Iowa caucuses when a hastily developed mobile app failed.
"I really don't have a good solution to offer. We seem to have bad and worse," said Douglas W. Jones, a University of Iowa computer science professor. "The bad is accepting someone helping to mark your ballot. And the worse is rushing to put in totally untested technology that I don't have any reason to trust at all."
Disability advocates said they have been calling on election officials for years to provide secure electronic absentee ballots. But only a small number of states have done so.
An estimated 7 million adults in the U.S. have a visual disability, and advocates worry that some might choose to skip voting altogether this year rather than risk catching the virus or having their ballot privacy compromised.
In Atlanta, Dorothy Griffin typically relies on ride-share to get to her polling place. A diabetic, she worries about catching the coronavirus while waiting in a crowded polling place.
Griffin requested an absentee ballot for Georgia's primary Tuesday, but she gave up waiting for it and decided to cast a ballot in person on the last day of early voting to avoid crowds on Election Day. As president of the Georgia affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind, Griffin asked the state to provide electronic ballot delivery, but it wasn't available.
"I definitely did not want to go, but I felt like it was my only choice because I didn't receive my paper ballot," Griffin said. "I was happy I was able to vote independently. But I was angry that I did not get my absentee ballot ahead of time even though I sent my request months ago."
Much of the concern surrounding electronic ballots centers on how they are returned. In some cases, these ballots must be printed by the voter and returned by mail or in person to a local election office. But elsewhere these ballots can be returned by email or fax and, in a small number of cases, via an online web portal to an election office for printing and counting.
In a memo to election officials, four federal agencies, including the FBI, assessed the risk of sending ballots electronically to be low but found allowing such ballots to be returned electronically was a high risk.
When Tracy Carcione heard her local election in Teaneck, New Jersey, on May 12 would be conducted entirely by mail, she thought to herself: "How the heck am I going to do that?"
Then Carcione, a 59-year-old computer programmer, learned her county was offering blind voters the option to receive ballots electronically under a pilot program. After receiving an email with a link and PIN number, Carcione went to a website where she signed an affidavit stating she was blind and gained access to an electronic ballot.
She used a computer program for reading news stories and filling out forms to put a mark next to each candidate she supported. After emailing her completed ballot, her local elections office printed it out for tallying on election day.
"It was all very clear and easy," Carcione said. "And, if I had the option, I would do it again."
But the option won't be available for the July 7 statewide primary. New Jersey election officials said they determined the system wasn't needed because some in-person voting would be available.
Carcione is not sure whether she will brave a polling place or not. She is leery of taking a taxi if the polling place is across town and of waiting in a long line.
"It's not a great choice," Carcione said. "I might take my chances and hope that my neighbor is the decent person I think she is."
For its pilot program, New Jersey worked with Democracy Live, a Seattle-based technology firm that works with election offices in several states, including California, Texas, Ohio and Florida to provide electronic ballots to military and overseas voters.
In Delaware, voters with disabilities were able to receive electronic ballots in recent elections through an in-house system that has since been retired in favor of the Democracy Live platform. It will be used during a pilot program in the state's July 7 presidential primary.
Delaware elections Commissioner Anthony Albence said officials are monitoring it closely to ensure security. Bryan Finney, president of Democracy Live, said the company has worked with outside firms to conduct security reviews and wants to engage researchers on improving its platform.
"This is America; we can do this," Finney said. "The alternative is to continue disenfranchising millions of voters both domestically and abroad because we haven't focused on actually solving the problem."
Earlier this year in West Virginia, lawmakers expanded electronic ballot delivery to voters with a physical disability. Secretary of State Mac Warner advocated for the law, saying it was important to ensure no voter is disenfranchised.
"There are security concerns, but the likelihood of that happening is rather remote," he said. "And it gets to a risk-reward benefit. The reward is getting people who wouldn't otherwise be able to vote."
Associated Press writer Randall Chase in Dover, Delaware, contributed to this report.