Voting with a Disability

Voting with a Disability

By: Laura McFadden

This year’s Election Protection efforts revealed that while some polling places successfully implemented federal and state laws, smoothly administering the election, others need improvement. One area which saw success in some jurisdictions, but is still in need of work in others, is dealing with the continued improvements needed for the full enfranchisement of people with disabilities.

Voting accessibility is guaranteed by clauses in a plethora of laws, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Help America Vote Act of 2002, the Voting accessibility for Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1993, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Unfortunately, despite the protections put into place, voting while disabled is still difficult for many.

According to the Federal Election Commission, among those individuals with disabilities who were registered but did not vote in November 2008, just under half (44%) gave “illness or disability” as the reason for not voting, compared to 10% of people without disabilities. People with disabilities were also more likely to cite transportation problems as a reason for not voting (7% compared to 2%), consistent with their higher rate of voting by mail. All in all, among the voting eligible population (citizens age 18 or older), 57.3% of people with disabilities voted, compared to 64.5% of people without disabilities. The issues that disabled voters encounter result in disenfranchisement by default.

At the polls disabled voters encounter a myriad of issues. Accessibility is a process and a continuum; there is no clear endpoint to defining a place as ‘accessible.’ A disability can be physical, cognitive, mental, sensory, emotional, developmental or any combination of those. As such, it is difficult to account for every possible barrier to casting a ballot. Proper education of what rights they have at the polls would empower disabled voters and prevent their disenfranchisement. Better training for poll workers would work to alleviate more pressing issues like what to do on Election Day when they encounter a disabled voter.

If a polling place is equipped with commonly thought of accessibility tools like ramps, lowered voting booths for those in wheelchairs, stalls with working audio voting systems for people with visual impairments, and accessible parking spaces near the polling place that will help many disabled voters cast their ballot, but not all. Some disabled voters require an aide to help them vote, and too often poll workers are improperly educated about what rights different voters have in the voting booth. 

It seems simple to call for more education, but it means combatting a pervasive and insidious ableism built into society. Change will not come overnight, but it can happen. Be you abled or disabled, always be aware of your surroundings. If you are a poll worker, check to see if the polling place is accessible. If you are a voter introduce the issue in a community forum and start the conversation about how to make your area more accessible. Every step, not matter how little counts.