To Matter, Your Right to Vote Requires Access

A "Your Vote Counts" ButtonBy Clyde Terry, National Council on Disability  

For voters with disabilities in the United States, just over a quarter of polling places are accessible (as of the last election). This isn’t because polling officials are deliberately blocking people with disabilities from voting, but one can easily imagine how the effect is essentially the same. Currently, a voter with a disability faces a nearly 75 percent chance that he or she will NOT be able to use his or her assigned polling precinct to vote. 

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that in 2008, only 27 percent of polling places were barrier-free. In fact, the Federal Election Commission reports that, in violation of state and federal laws, more than 20,000 polling places across the nation are inaccessible, depriving Americans with disabilities of their fundamental right to vote.

The scope of such findings is substantial. Figures recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau suggest that the population of Americans with disabilities has risen in recent years to 56.7 million – that’s 18.7 percent of our population. Of the 17 percent of voting-age Americans who are 65 years or older, at least 36 percent identify as disabled. 

But barriers to voting aren’t always physical – some are legislative. 

To date, 37 states have either considered or are considering photo ID legislation. This is a concern because many Americans with disabilities and older adults lack a driver’s license, passport or other form of approved government-issued photo identification. As a result, voter turnout among Americans with disabilities is likely to decrease during the same time many issues with a direct impact on the quality of life of people with disabilities are being decided. At first glance, it might seem obvious that every American should be able to get into a polling place to vote – privately and independently – once they get there, but obvious is not the same as assured. If a voter with a disability lacks approved identification, the end result is the same as a flight of stairs, the absence of Braille or accessible technology. 

In recent decades, Congress has made efforts to promote accessibility, most notably through the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 and the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA). The implementation of these statutes makes the elimination of barriers to in-precinct voting by people with visual or mobility-related disabilities explicit. Polling places are required to be accessible and barrier free, and voting machines must allow voters with disabilities to cast their ballot privately and independently. While these laws have helped improve the accessibility of polling locations, in general, the promise of accessible, voting privacy for all persons with disabilities remains elusive. The recent emergency evacuation of voters with disabilities from the Northeastern United States during Hurricane Sandy with no back-up plan for voters to return or cast their ballot remotely is but one striking example. 

Many states sidestep voting accessibility by emphasizing absentee voting, voting by mail or curbside voting where poll workers actually meet people with disabilities at their vehicle with a ballot. Although the availability of these voting options should not be discouraged outright, neither should they become the only option for people with disabilities simply because physical and other barriers to casting a vote have been ignored, or that laws already passed have not yet been implemented. 

Physical barriers are perhaps the easiest to imagine, but we must also remember that inaccessible technology, stigma and attitudinal barriers all continue to have a chilling effect on civic participation of Americans with disabilities. Currently, 15 states and the District of Columbia bar individuals from voting based on often arbitrary and flexible definitions of “mental incapacity” or guardianship status. In these areas, individuals under guardianship must petition a judge to let them vote. 

While not an obvious slight to voters with disabilities, the problems become more apparent when one considers the fact that no other voting group, however uninformed, have to demonstrate any kind of “voting competence,” in which an individual may be required to explain the voting process, detail their political views or provide the names of federal, state or local officeholders – the disparate treatment of voters with disabilities becomes clear. Earlier this year, voters with disabilities in Minnesota were faced with a challenge that could have diminished their voting rights in this way.

To address this disparity, in coordination with the National Disability Rights Network and EIN SOF Communications, the National Council on Disability is collecting information from voters with disabilities across the nation in the form of an open-ended questionnaire regarding their voting experiences during the November 2012 General Election. Together, we will issue a Final Report on the findings in early 2013.    

For those of you in areas affected by Hurricane Sandy, where polling places may have changed to temporary venues, please capture your experiences in the “additional comments” section at the end of the questionnaire.

With tomorrow’s election, we would appreciate your dissemination of this brief open-ended questionnaire to your networks of colleagues, clients, constituents and friends.

The constitutional right to vote is an invaluable cornerstone of civic participation in a democracy. So that this treasured principle does not ring hollow for millions of Americans with disabilities – a group any of us could join in an instant – it is imperative that all levels of government recommit to ensuring the ADA’s and other legislative goals of full participation.  

At the very least, this means that neither the right to vote nor the means to do so, privately and independently, should ever be in question. 

For More Information:

Clyde Terry is a member of the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency that advises the President, Congress and other federal agencies about disability policy.

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