By Matt Vasilogambros

For decades, Kathy Hoell has struggled to vote. Poll workers have told the 62-year-old Nebraskan, who uses a powered wheelchair and has a brain injury that causes her to speak in a strained and raspy voice, that she isn’t smart enough to cast a ballot. They have led her to stairs she couldn’t climb and prevented her from using an accessible voting machine because they hadn’t powered it on.

“Basically,” Hoell said, “I’m a second-class citizen.”

The barriers Hoell has faced are not unusual for the more than 35 million voting-age Americans with disabilities. As many jurisdictions return to paper ballots to address cybersecurity concerns — nearly half of Americans now vote on paper ballots, counted digitally or by optical scanners — such obstacles are likely to get worse.

Many people with disabilities cannot mark paper ballots without assistance, so they rely on special voting machines that are equipped with earphones and other modifications. But the return to paper ballots has made poll workers less comfortable with operating machine-based systems, said Michelle Bishop, a voting rights advocate for the National Disability Rights Network. Under increasing pressure to oversee a smooth, secure election, untrained poll workers have discouraged the use of accessible voting machines, leaving voters with disabilities behind.

It’s a constant complaint from voters with disabilities nationwide, Bishop said. In the last election, for example, a voter called her to report that a machine was placed in the corner, turned off, with a flower wreath hung on it.

“The message is: You’re not wanted here,” Bishop said. “We get reports of poll workers discouraging their use. They say, ‘I haven’t been well trained,’ ‘It’s intimidating to me,’ ‘We’ll set it to the side and get through Election Day.’ ”

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