Meet Our Client: North Dakota’s Advocates for a More Accessible Voting System

Issues
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Helen Bechold of Self Advocacy Solutions
Helen Bechold, founding member of Self Advocacy Solutions, N.D. stops for a picture at her polling place in North Dakota. Photo courtesy of Carla Tice.

Answers provided to the the Campaign Legal Center (CLC) communications team by Helen Bechold and Carla Tice, founding members of Self Advocacy Solutions, N.D. (SAS). SAS is CLC’s client in a voting rights lawsuit in 2020 where SAS is the named plaintiff.

 

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  ― Margaret Mead

Q: How was SAS formed and what is your mission?

SAS, N.D. was formed to help build a network to help people with intellectual and developmental disabilities know their human rights and then take the action that is needed to make sure they are supported and respected.

Part of the reason for forming SAS, N.D. is that the founders had been working in the self advocacy movement since 1991, accomplishing many things that removed barriers preventing people with disabilities from having a full life, and making their voices heard. It was time for growth and SAS, N.D. to set its own direction. Our mission is to promote human and civil rights of people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. SAS, N.D. has a bottom up organizational structure. We learn from each other, and we stand true to the motto, “Nothing about us without us.”

Q: Who are you and what inspired you to do the work you do?

Helen Bechold
Helen Bechold. Photo courtesy of Carla Tice.

HELEN BECHOLD: My name is Helen Bechold, and I am a Self-Advocate from Grand Forks, North Dakota. I was sent to the Grafton State Institution when I was just three years old. I never had the chance to grow up in my hometown, know my family, or exercise any of my human rights including my right to vote.

If I spoke up for something I wanted in my life when I was at the institution, we were punished. I quickly learned to be a “yes” person, but that all changed when I became a Self-Advocate. One day while living at the institution, I came across a photo of a radio in a Sears Catalog. I thought it would be neat to have something of my own, the ability to listen to music and news. I cut the picture out and snuck it out in with a letter to my mother, which was hard since all our mail was read and much of it was thrown out. For my birthday, she sent me a radio and all these years later, I still have that radio.  

I got out of the institution when I was 30 years old and moved to Grand Forks, N.D. I lived in a hostel house for a while and learned some things about the community. I became pretty independent enjoying my new life of freedom. I saw what worked for people with disabilities and what did not.

Because I had done volunteer work at what was previously called the Association of Retarded Citizens, now The Arc Upper Valley, my friend Ray and I went to the Arc to talk. They had heard about Self-Advocacy at a conference and were starting to bring it back to North Dakota.

I became a founding member of the first Self Advocacy group, called We Unite. This was in May of 1989; we had a class about our human rights and I learned for the first time about my right to vote. A few years later, Carla Tice started working at The Arc.

We hit it off right away. Carla and I had been working hard in the Self-Advocacy movement since March 1991. Our work was not just a weekly or monthly meeting, we worked every day on taking down barriers that prevented people with disabilities from having the life they wanted and deserved.

Our group's membership has grown substantially since then, and we meet two times a month. We worked with Bobby Vogel, who was the President of our group then. Carla, Bobby and I traveled the state, telling more people about the Self-Advocacy movement, and about our lives. The state of North Dakota is vast, so we had a lot of time to get to know each other in all our car trips, so we became lifelong friends.

This motivated us to do whatever we could to make life better for people with disabilities. Through the Self-Advocacy movement, I accomplished more than I ever dreamed of. I have traveled the world with Carla and others, speaking at national conferences, from California to New York and every place in between. As each year of learning passed, I placed increasing importance on knowing my human rights and exercising them to fight oppression and discrimination. With the right to vote, we learned how to look for leaders who had the policies that would give us equal chances and opportunities.

We learned that if one right is taken away from us it affects all our other rights. For example, the right to vote. If you can’t vote, you have no say in education, work and healthcare. We grew and felt confident we could go out on our own. Bobby and many others joined the effort of us becoming our own Self-Advocacy organization, and we found an organization that would act as fiscal manager, and walked the walk of equality and justice for all people.

I was involved with the SAS, N.D. team in our efforts to do a statewide training on the process of voting, absentee voting, the Automark and complying with state voter ID laws. [The Automark is a new ballot-marking device that allows for the use of a touch screen and gives voters an audio option.

Self Advocacy Solutions, ND Board
Board Members of Self Advocacy Solutions, ND. Darryl Wall, Pam Smith, Helen Bechold, Tracy Livingood, Rhonda Anderson, Donnada Aipperspach, Allen Marx, Lori Marx, Carrie Varner, Nathan Olds, Cindy Kile, AJ Marx and Audra Nikle. Photo courtesy of Carla Tice.

I went to New York City with Carla Tice and friends from Advocating for Change Together to join national and international leaders at the United Nations.

I shared my story of growing up in a state institution, and how I never want history to repeat itself. We did a lot of work with the UN Convention of Rights for persons with disabilities, including the right to vote.

With all the challenges I have overcome in my lifetime, in the past years my eyesight has diminished. I can not see print like I use to and this has caused my signature to change. I believe in the power of the vote, and it would break my heart if my vote was not counted because my handwriting has diminished. The Self-Advocacy movement, SAS, has been my life’s work. I always tell my friend Carla I will never give up. I will never stop fighting so people don't have rights taken like mine were.

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CARLA TICE: My name is Carla Tice, and I am an ally to the Self-Advocacy movement, a consultant in this movement in a few states and the registered agent for SAS. Working in this movement has been my life’s work. I am from a family of 11 siblings.

My youngest brother, Neal, who passed away in 2012, was born with Down Syndrome. I was a sixth grader, and even at that age, I could not understand why my brother could not go to the same school as I did. He had to be bussed to another town to get an education. I also have a sister who was paralyzed at age 23. I could never understand why her wheelchair use restricted her access to so many places.

Through college, I worked part time jobs in group home settings. I couldn’t understand why the people who lived there had no voice and no choice on how they wanted to live. Everyone did the talking for them.

Four people posing for a photo, three standing and one in a wheelchair
SAS, N.D. founders John Birkeland, Carla Tice, Helen Bechold and Bobby Vogel. Photo courtesy of Carla Tice.

In 1991, I was hired as a Community Organizer for a local Arc. One of my responsibilities was to be an advisor to the first ever local Self-Advocacy group in the state of North Dakota. It is here I met Bobby Vogel, who was the President and Helen Bechold who was a founding member. This was the first I had heard of this radical movement that seemed to have so many answers to the questions I had about my brother, my sister, and many friends I had met who happened to have a disability. 

We were embarking on a civil rights movement to make change so little brothers who happen to have down syndrome could be at the same school in the same town, so my sister could go anywhere I went. People with developmental disabilities would have a chance to live, work and play alongside everyone else if they chose. I grew up with a mother who instilled in her kids the value of our political right. She taught us how we needed to stay informed, know our history, and do our part in making the country work the best for all people.

One of those ways includes the right to vote. The seeds she planted helped me as I became an ally for the amazing citizens I met. It was Bobby Vogel, Helen Bechold, John Birkeland and so many self-advocates and allies from across the state that had story after story on how their rights, their voices and their choices had been taken away. The list is long, but each person ever involved in Self Advocacy Solutions, N.D., Self-Advocacy efforts are true history makers in this state. I am proud to be associated with every one of them. Bobby was the original President of the first local Self-Advocacy group in Grand Forks, ND and was hired as a SAS, ND team leader.

The right to vote, to those who fought before us, to those who have been denied, to those who are just now getting to exercise that right, we need to fight for that right, making voting accessible, fair and do everything in our power to know that every vote counts, every voice matters.

Packing a wheelchair and an Automark in a small car and traveling across the state with them was no easy task.

Q: How has the coronavirus pandemic worsened concerns about ballot access for people with disabilities?

Many people with disabilities have been in complete lock down since the second week in March. This means that they are following the rules of social distancing and have literally not been able to leave their homes. This is for safety reasons, as many have compromising health conditions.

To go to the polls at this time would be completely out of the question for many Self-Advocates. Using a mail-in ballot will be the only option for many North Dakotans with disabilities. In many cases, people will require assistance with the process of filling out and returning absentee ballots. This requires having the right supports in place. We can do our part in providing education and support, but we can not control how an individual’s signature might have changed due to that person’s disability or other factors.

Q: Do you anticipate a rise in absentee voting due to fears of contracting COVID-19?

Yes. Self-Advocates will definitely be voting more with absentee ballots. If restrictions are lifted, we also believe that people will have fear of going to where there are larger lines or crowds.

Q: What led to SAS working with Campaign Legal Center (CLC) to challenge North Dakota’s signature matching requirements and becoming the named plaintiff in the case, SAS v. North Dakota Secretary of State Alvin Jaeger? Why do these laws harm people with disabilities?

SAS, N.D. hangs its hat on the fact that educating people on the voting process has been a very big part of our organization’s legacy. In 2012 and 2014, SAS N.D. received a small grant to do voting education throughout the state. John Birkeland the Voting Coordinator, and his team of Self-Advocates, including Bobby Vogel and allies like Ashley Holt were so passionate about the human right of voting. That’s why the SAS, N.D. Voter education effort went above and beyond. The use of the Automark was one of the focuses. The Automark is a new ballot-marking device that allows for the use of a touch screen and gives voters an audio option.

Bobby Vogel
Bobby Vogel of North Dakota participates in an election training in 2012 put on by Self Advocacy Solutions, ND.

During the process of educating over 700 people, SAS N.D. heard firsthand accounts of how people attending the training had never been presented the opportunity to go vote. One gentleman was in his fifties and had never voted. He was very informed on the issues and the candidates but had never been encouraged to exercise his rights.

In 2014, another voting team of SAS, N.D. formed. It included Self-Advocates Tracy Livingood and allies like Ciara Meyers and Audra Nickle, who all went the extra mile to make sure everyone understood what they needed to know. They trained people on the use of voter ID and absentee voting.

We have heard both the excitement in people’s voices when they cast their first ballot as well as the excitement when they hear the results of the election. The feeling of knowing “my vote mattered” goes a long way.

Q: What changes would you like to see to voting laws to make the ballot more accessible for your members?

Self-Advocates ask for a fair playing field. Everyone wants the same chance and the same treatment. Every self-advocate wants their vote to count. Signatures can change over time. People with disabilities working with SAS N.D. have seen firsthand how their timecard signature can change from pay period to pay period, or month to month. Helen Bechold, our founding member has had a drastic change in her eyesight in the last year. Her signature that used to be very consistent has recently changed. SAS, N.D. would like the opportunity to fix signature verification issues before their ballots are thrown away.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

CARLA TICE: We go through life with gratitude for the people who have passed on before, people who worked hard and made a difference for our democracy. We have joined the history makers and policy shakers, combining all the good that comes from fighting for what is right for all. This COVID-19 pandemic will go down in history, and in that history, it is our hope that the “right to vote” is made accessible to all, and that every vote is counted and every person knows their vote matters.

Our hearts have become imprinted with stories of people with disabilities taking the lead on teaching about a human right they had been denied, the right to vote.

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