The Barriers To Voting Americans With Disabilities Face In 2021

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.

State lawmakers’ efforts to use former President Trump’s election lies to justify legislation to limit people’s freedom to vote have received a lot of attention in 2021, but a topic that has received less attention is what those barriers to voting would mean for Americans with disabilities.

Around one in four American adults have a disability, according to estimates from the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Among the categories that the CDC includes for different types of disabilities are impairments in hearing, vision, cognition and mobility.

While not every person with a disability will have trouble voting due to their disability, such conditions can and do make voting more difficult for many. When further hurdles are placed before them by restrictive legislation, casting a ballot can become nearly impossible for some members of the disability community.

A survey issued by researchers at Syracuse and Rutgers University following the 2012 elections found almost one-third of people with disabilities reported difficulties voting and that turnout among voters with disabilities was 6% lower than those without—resulting in three million fewer people participating in that year’s elections. 

In the 2020 elections, according to a report conducted by the Rutgers Program for Disability Research, only 18% of voters with a disability said that they faced challenges with voting. This was due in part to the greater range of voting methods offered because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many states altered their election procedures to provide voters with greater access during the pandemic, which helped lead to historic turnout in 2020.

However, the anti-voter proposals moving through state legislatures across the country this year threaten to roll back the policies that have helped voters with disabilities participate at higher rates and have their voices heard. Instead, they would erect burdensome and unnecessary barriers to voting.

Since disability can look different for different people, there is no one method that will make voting accessible for all. Having a wide array of options available will provide voters with disabilities the freedom to choose the method that works best for them.

In addition to Election Day voting, this means that methods like early voting, vote-by-mail, curbside voting and drop boxes should also be available to make voting more accessible for people in the disability community. Yet many states’ anti-voter laws and proposed bills reduce access to these voting methods. 

For instance, Arizona legislators have enacted a law that will severely weaken the permanent early voting list by removing voters from the list more frequently and requiring additional steps to obtain a mail ballot.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in Florida and Georgia have recently passed laws restricting access to drop boxes and the ability to receive and submit mail-in ballots. The Florida law also limits early voting, while similar limits were considered by the Georgia legislature, but were ultimately removed from the final bill after advocacy by voters and civic organizations.

In many cases, state legislators intentionally excluded members of the disability community during the legislative process, preventing them from offering insights gleaned from their personal experiences with their states’ voting systems.

As Gaylon Tootle, a blind Black disability rights advocate in Georgia wrote in an op-ed published while the state’s anti-voter bill was still being refined, “I’m speaking out because – if passed – there would be collateral damage for my community, and we’ve been ignored throughout the process.

Proposals to limit early voting, remove drop boxes for ballot collection and even prevent people from handing out water to people standing in line at the polls are disrespectful. It’s all trying to tell my community we don’t matter,” Tootle continued.

To make voting more accessible to Americans with disabilities, Campaign Legal Center (CLC) represented Self-Advocacy Solutions (SAS), a disability rights organization, the League of Women Voters North Dakota (LWVND) and Maria Romo, a special education para educator with multiple sclerosis (MS), in a case to ensure that the state counts all validly cast mail ballots.

Similarly, CLC represented the League of Women Voters of the U.S. (LWVUS), the League of Women Voters of New York (LWVNY) and Carmelita Palmer, who lives in the state of New York and has been diagnosed with a neurological condition that causes hand tremors.

This lawsuit stopped the state from using an unreliable signature match process to justify rejecting voters’ ballots.

The lawsuit filed by CLC compelled New York to update its signature match laws to be less restrictive. In the 2020 general election, the rejection rate for mail ballots was 4%, down from 14%. Furthermore, nearly 9,000 New Yorkers were able to address deficiencies in their ballots and have them counted. 

CLC has also successfully sued to suspend Rhode Island’s witness requirement during the pandemic, which would have made voting in 2020 very challenging for those with vision-related disabilities, like Miranda Oakley, who has been blind her entire life.

Protecting the right of Americans with disabilities to vote is crucial to making sure that their voices are heard in our government. We must ensure that Americans can cast our ballots so we are able to elect leaders who govern in our interests and make the promise of our democracy real for us all.

As CLC's communications assistant, Georgia writes and edits content for the website.
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