Many campaign websites are not accessible to people with disabilities, an update on Biden's Q2 fundraising, and which candidates have already qualified for the September debates.

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Note: This is the speaking script for the show, so the audio as delivered will different very slightly from the below. This script also does not include advertisements, which may appear at various points in the show.

Intro: Welcome to the Primary Ride Home for Thursday, July 4th, 2019. I’m your host, Chris Higgins. Today: Many campaign websites are not accessible to people with disabilities, an update on Biden’s Q2 fundraising, and which candidates have already qualified for the September debates. Here’s what you missed today from the campaign trail.

MANY CAMPAIGN WEBSITES ARE NOT ACCESSIBLE TO PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES

Our top story today has to do with the primary candidates’ websites. A recent story for Vox by S.E. Smith pointed out that many candidates are doing a poor job at making their websites accessible to people with disabilities. Smith’s article is titled, QUOTE, “Not one 2020 candidate has a website that is accessible to the blind.” END QUOTE. And the sub-head really drives it home, QUOTE: “The first stop to reaching disabled voters is making sure they can access your policy proposals.” END QUOTE.

I think the best way to start is by reading a few paragraphs from Vox. QUOTE:

“Blind and low-vision users, along with disabled people who have certain other impairments like seizure disorders and cognitive disabilities — as well as those who are deaf and hard of hearing — can’t actually use the candidates’ websites. It’s just the first in a series of obstacles disabled communities face when trying to make informed voting decisions, even though these groups have an especially vested interest in politics.

Thirty-five million eligible voters are disabled, and disability turnout lags behind that of nondisabled voters by 6 percentage points; if disabled people voted at the same rate as their nondisabled counterparts, there would be 2.2 million more voters. One of the reasons is that voting is extra difficult for disabled people. Inaccessibility of polling places and election materials is a factor, as are voter suppression tactics — disabled people are less likely to have state identifications, for example, and get caught in voter ID laws.” END QUOTE.

So let’s dig into this website issue. For this segment, I interviewed several experts in the area of accessibility, which is a specific practice concerned with making things—like websites, or movies, or speeches, or buildings, or podcasts—usable by people with disabilities. A typical example is to figure out whether a person who is blind or has a visual impairment can use a website. Many people with these disabilities use technology called screen readers, which are apps that read text out loud. Other folks use things like braille displays, which do basically the same thing, but instead of using speech, the text pops up in braille lettering on a row that you can run your fingers across. These are simply different ways of accessing the same information.

Regardless of the technical stuff, the idea is, if the website has been designed properly to start with, anyone who cannot see, or hear, or has any other form of impairment, can still get at the information—they can read the words, they can watch the videos, they can fill out forms to donate money, or sign up to volunteer, or join a mailing list, or any other function on the site. For all of these, there are well-defined ways to make them accessible. The problem here is that, according to the review by Smith in Vox, the primary candidates are doing a poor job at this.

And what’s worse, there are other barriers to access beyond disability. Most of the candidates offer Spanish translations of their websites, but many of those translations are poorly written, or they’re only partial translations, leaving chunks of the site in English. The net result is you can’t access the information if you happen to be a person who speaks Spanish. While this is not the same as a disability issue, they arerelated.

Reading from Smith’s piece once more, QUOTE:

“While nondisabled people may not think of it this way, immigration, transportation, reproductive rights, affordable housing, employment nondiscrimination, LGBTQ rights, racial injustice, and criminal justice reform are also disability issues. The disability community is disproportionately represented in marginalized groups — many of those seeking refuge at the border are disabled, with impairments like PTSD, depression, and anxiety caused by enduring trauma, along with acquired disabilities from living in war zones. Incarcerated people are much more likely to be disabled, and many of the black, Latinx, and indigenous people being shot and killed by police are also disabled.” END QUOTE.

And this gets at the disconnect between the policy platforms the candidates espouse, versus the actual implementation of their websites. It’s one thing for a candidate to say they support people with disabilities, but if an actual person with a disability can’t get that information, what’s the point?

I spoke on Twitter with Brian McNeilly, a usability and design expert, who confirmed much of Smith’s reporting. McNeilly also pointed out that many of the Spanish-language websites are coded incorrectly, labeling their language as English. This causes technology like screen readers to mispronounce the words, presenting yet another barrier to access. In our discussion, McNeilly wrote, QUOTE:

“I think the most important point in that article is on how disability intersects with other identities, which is really only touched on a bit at the end. If we consider accessibility without how it intersects with race, class, [and] sexual orientation, we’ll continue to build policies that won’t lift everyone up.” END QUOTE.

So McNeilly highlights exactly why this is a POLITICAL ISSUE, not just a technical one.

Okay, next up, I spoke via email with Matt May, an accessibility expert who has worked in the field for 20 years. In our discussion, he pointed out that specific technical standards exist to measure the accessibility of a given website. They’re called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, or WCAG. These standards allow anyone—including campaigns—to test their own websites to measure how accessible they are. There are three key levels of WCAG accessibility: A, AA, and AAA—AAA is the best. May suggested that reaching the WCAG AA level of compliance is a commonly-cited target for government websites. It would be reasonable to expect candidates to aim for that as well. They currently do not meet this standard.

I reviewed several candidates’ websites on my own, using accessibility testing tools. On every site I reviewed, I found clear errors. For instance, text was often not text—it was a picture of text. This makes that part of the site unusable for a person with a visual disability, because pictures cannot be read out loud. There were also various problems with things like signup forms and other interactive elements. Many videos had closed captions, but some did not. Some videos auto-played in the background, with text and stuff on top of them, creating a potential hazard for people with seizure disorders.

But one of the most interesting things I found was that every site I reviewed uses ActBlue for donations. And it sure looks like some are using ActBlue as an overall template for their websites. Getting into that issue, here’s what May told me, QUOTE:

“Looks to me like many if not most candidates are running on the same platform, ActBlue. So campaign digital staffs probably have very little original development work to do, and it shows. Lots of your top-tier sites look pretty seriously cookie-cutter. And if they built a poor template to build from, every site will suffer.” END QUOTE.

In other words, if the ActBlue template were improved, that improvement could flow through to many candidates’ sites. That’s an area where we, as voters, can and should apply pressure. Every American has the right to vote. But if candidates fail to present their case to voters in a way that actually works, how can we expect people to make informed decisions?

In the Vox piece, Smith noted that several campaigns had acknowledged the problems and reached out for more information on improving their websites. The campaigns listed are Biden, Warren, and Yang. I contacted each of those campaigns earlier this week asking for a comment on how those updates are going. None of them have replied.

Having said that, in my testing I did notice that Warren has added a Web Accessibility Statement to her website. It’s linked in the footer of each page. That page explains that Warren’s team is working toward making her website WCAG AA accessible, though it is an ongoing process. She also provides a specific email address and phone number to contact the campaign for accessibility issues. That is considered a best practice, and it’s a good starting point. While even that page has some accessibility problems—all of them stemming from the overall website template, it is a VERY WELCOME CHANGE. Warren deserves credit for paying attention to this and actually taking action. In my quick review I didn’t see similar statements from other candidates, though I did not review all 25 of their websites.

To wrap up this segment, let me read from my interview with May one more time. QUOTE:

“Bottom line: campaigns have relatively small sites that they should be able to keep in tip-top shape, as long as the candidates’ digital staffs put in some small amount of effort testing sites and accepting feedback. It’s good that people are talking about it now.” END QUOTE.

AN UPDATE ON BIDEN’S Q2 FUNDRAISING

Yesterday, right before the deadline for this show, Joe Biden’s campaign released his Q2 fundraising numbers. Here’s a quick update on those, now that I’ve had more than ten minutes to sit with them.

Overall, Biden brought in $21.5 million dollars. He had a total of 435,000 DONATIONS given by 256,000 donors. That means some of those donors gave more than once. An ABC News story pointed out that, if you take Biden’s fundraising and divide it by the number of DAYS he’s actually been in the race, his per-day fundraising looks a whole lot better than just the total number. Let me explain.

There were a total of 91 days in Q2 this year. Given that number, the average per-day raise for Buttigieg was around $272,000 dollars. Every day. That’s a great number. For Sanders, the per-day raise was around $198,000 dollars. Also very good. But for Biden, given his shorter time in the race, his per-day number is about $326,000 dollars. That beats Buttigieg by almost $54,000 dollars each day. Now THAT is an impressive number, and it casts Biden’s Q2 in a very different light.

Biden’s campaign did NOT release figures about cash on hand, so we can’t compare those to Buttigieg or Sanders, but we’ll know all about that stuff in just about 11 days anyhow.

Two other notes. First, the Biden campaign noted that it has opened all its fundraising events to the press. This is actually what led to that recent dust-up over Biden’s comments about Senate relationships in the 70s—there was a reporter in the room taking notes, who later provided those notes to other reporters—but that’s part of WHY you put a reporter in the room. It’s a degree of transparency that is very welcome.

And second, the Biden campaign is doing the responsible thing with over-enthusiastic donors. Reading from a Politico story by Natasha Korecki and Maggie Severns, QUOTE:

“The Biden campaign also said it is “actively reimbursing” any checks it receives that are for the general election, which several other candidates in the race are not doing. General election donations allow enthusiastic donors to give more than the $2,800 [dollar] maximum that is allowed for a primary election.” END QUOTE.

So let me clarify that. Under federal law, each citizen is allowed to give each primary candidate a maximum of $2,800 dollars in the primary, because the primary is an election. When the GENERAL election happens later, that is a SECOND election, so that counter resets and a NEW threshold of $2,800 dollars kicks in for everybody.

Given that the general election is not until NEXT YEAR, the responsible thing to do is simply send back general election donations and then ask for them again if you happen to win the primary. Apparently some campaigns, though I don’t have a handy list of which ones, are taking in both kinds of donations now, but have to keep the general election pool of money separate.

WHICH CANDIDATES HAVE ALREADY QUALIFIED FOR THE SEPTEMBER DEBATES

And last up today, let’s talk about the September debates. First let me lay out some key dates coming up. The next debates are July 30thand 31st, that’s a Tuesday and Wednesday, in Detroit. That July debate is hosted by CNN, and has the same qualifying rules as the June debate we just had last week.

After that July debate, the DNC is taking August off. The next DNC primary debate will be on September 12thand 13th…or maybe just the 12thif not too many people qualify. That one will be hosted by ABC, but other details there have not yet been released.

Okay, so who, in this field, will make it into those September debates? According to the New York Times, there are five candidates who have a lock on both the donor numbers and the likely polling leading up to September. Those candidates are:

Biden, Buttigieg, Harris, Sanders, and Warren.

In addition to those five, it’s likely that Beto O’Rourke will also make it to those debates, though there are minor question marks about his most recent polling numbers, which haven’t been so hot. Then again, he has enough of a national profile—and a polling history—that it seems likely he will achieve the polling threshold. He has already passed the donor threshold, so that’s not a problem.

And then you have Andrew Yang, who has also already crossed the donor threshold, but is kind of on the bubble in terms of polling. He has achieved 2 percent in polls before, but at times he’s not quite hitting that 2-percent target. For instance, in both the Quinnipiac and ABC-slash-Washington Post polls I discussed yesterday, he hit 1 percent. So for Yang, the mission right now is to spend July and August pushing for better poll numbers, just like O’Rourke.

So that is currently the list as we know it—and that’s just seven people. I’m going to read here from a New York Times piece by Matt Stevens and Maggie Astor. QUOTE:

“The D.N.C. has said that only polls publicly released between June 28[th] and Aug[ust] 28[th] can be used to help candidates qualify for the September debate. That means all the candidates have started counting again from zero.

Candidates like Mr. Booker and Ms. Klobuchar often poll at 2 percent and above and may very well reach the polling threshold. But they could struggle to get to 130,000 unique donors.” END QUOTE.

That’s a good reminder that, oh by the way, nobody has four qualifying polls yet because not enough polls have been released yet—though that will change rapidly. A lot of what we’re dealing with here is the assumption that candidates CAN draw 2 percent in 4 polls—which is a super solid bet for about eight or maybe nine of them.

So while we are still months out from this September debate, across the country right now are a few dozen teams working to plot their path to this next milestone.

Outro: Well, that is it for one more episode of the Primary Ride Home. I have been your host, Chris Higgins. You can always find me on Twitter @chrishiggins. All right, Independence Day is upon us! I’m gonna use my three-day weekend to tackle some house projects—I’ve gotta figure out how to fix an IKEA shelf that fell off my office wall the day after I installed it. Gonna put in some door sweeps on our ancient farmhouse doors, and spray WD-40 all over everything I can find. Oh, and today I posted my first transcript for this podcast. That link is in the show notes, and I’m gonna look at going back and posting older transcripts as well, because I’ve got scripts for every show we’ve done so far. Well, enjoy the fireworks, drive safely, and as always, thanks for listening. I will talk to y’all on MONDAY.