If you're disabled and want to vote in Fairfax County on Nov. 6, or by absentee ballot earlier, remember two key points:
1. Plan ahead.
2. Don't expect that the hard-working election officials — many of them temporary hires — will have received enough training to handle every problem they encounter.
On Oct. 22, I visited the Taj Mahal, the opprobrium bestowed by locals on the Fairfax County Government Center, with its sprawling architecture and bloated employee rolls.
Because I have a disability and a placard on my car saying so, I parked in a disabled spot. With some difficulty, I made my way to Room 323 where fellow citizens were lined up to vote.
It's not an easy thing to do. You must first fill out a poorly designed application form. After that, you must wait in line. When your time comes, you must show identification. In Virginia, state law is flexible as to what kind of ID you can use but you must show something, whether it's a driver's license or a utility bill. Not all election officers are trained to know your ID needn't be a driver's license and needn't include a photo.
Virginia doesn't have unrestricted "early voting" as 31 states have. Virginia has "absentee voting" with an "excuse" — meaning you must have a reason for seeking to cast your ballot earlier than Election Day. Among "excuses" that permit absentee voting in the Commonwealth are being "absent on the day of election" from the country or city where you vote (my reason). Another "excuse" is "a disability, illness or pregnancy." The list of "excuses" is so long we might as well just dispense with it and simply allow unrestricted early voting. State Sen. Janet Howell, Democrat of Reston, has repeatedly introduced a bill to do just that. Republican state legislators have killed Howell's measure every time.
I wasn't planning to play the disabled card.
However, after about 20 minutes of standing in line for the first half of the two-step process — filling out an application, and subsequently getting in line to vote — my health issue was causing me considerable discomfort. Very simply, my body was not going to permit me to wait the additional half hour or so. I spoke to two election officers, explained I'm disabled, and asked if they could help.
Their solution was to offer a chair, so I could wait my turn in line while sitting.
After the passage of more time, perhaps 40 minutes in all from my arrival at Room 323, I realized I was to going to be physically unable to wait. I exchanged words with the two election officials, gave up my plan to vote, and left.
On the sidewalk in front of the Taj, I stopped and talked with Democratic Party volunteers. The party workers told me something the election officials hadn't: In Virginia, a person with a disability can request curbside voting and cast a ballot from his car. Based on advice given by telephone by attorney John W. Farrell, the party workers went to Room 323 and said, "Hey, we have a curbside voter." After a further passage of time, I became exactly that — a curbside voter.
A different pair of election officials came to my car and gave me a new copy of the application form. This time, I gave as my "excuse" not my pending out-of-town trip but my disability. To my astonishment, the form required me not merely to assert I have a disability but to describe its nature. This is probably a violation of several laws including the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, better known to most as the HIPPAA. It felt intimidating: If my legal status as a disabled person wasn't good enough, I wondered, what if my medical explanation of the disability — somewhat delicate — wasn't good enough either?
That worry was a needless one. Subsequently, I learned election officials are prohibited from asking questions about the required explanation, and that voters should not be deterred by this requirement. Several officials have tried in vain to have the requirement for an explanation removed.
Once I'd filled out the application — why must I "apply" to vote? — there was a further wait. And then, the two officials returned to my car with a ballot for me to fill out.
By then, I was severely uncomfortable and exhausted. I looked at the ballot and knew something was wrong but my brain wouldn't tell me what. I filled out the ballot, cast my vote, and departed. Only later, I realized they'd given me a ballot for Virginia's 10th District. Exactly as my driver's license or any other ID I might show proclaims, I live and am registered in Virginia's 11th District.
Sorry, Gerry Connolly.
That's right. I voted in the wrong district.
Perhaps there is a difference between Room 323 in the Taj Mahal and Room 101, the torture chamber in the Ministry of Love in George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, which is infamous for containing "the worst thing in the world." If there is a difference, it is only in degree. By the time I left the Taj Mahal, I felt I'd been tortured.
Finally, then, here are my questions:
1. If a voter appears at Room 323 and raises his disability as an issue, are election officials required to tell him about curbside voting? They didn't tell me.
2. If you're really disabled and can prove it, should Fairfax County be permitted to ask the "nature" of your disability? The County asked me.
Those temporary-hire election officers "are trained to act like gatekeepers instead of being trained to facilitate the most fundamental Constitutional right Americans have," attorney Farrell said. He said the term "gatekeeper" appears in training materials. He faults the training, not the people. It should be said that while they're paid a stipend, most election officers are essentially volunteers and do their best.
After my experience, Farrell and other experts urged me not to discourage anyone from trying to vote. Your experience will almost certainly differ from mine.
The fact remains, we all need to work to make it easier to exercise this basic right.