Voting Accessibility: Responsibilities and Rights
By Jason Harris, with Burton Blatt Institute (BBI) at Syracuse University
Voting is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, rights and responsibilities that any person has in our democracy. It is important to ensure people can vote for candidates and initiatives of their choice, so that their voices and interests are represented. The right to vote is something that many groups had to fight for and are still working to make sure those rights are ensured. This includes people with disabilities, who like other minority groups have been barred to vote or had restrictions or environmental barriers placed on them. That being said, there are laws to make sure people with disabilities are able to vote, and many individuals have taken advantage of these laws to make sure their voices are heard.
Voting Rights Laws and Accessibility
In 2018 the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that there are 61 million people in the United States with some type of disability. According to Rooted in Rights there are around 35 million people who are eligible to vote. That is important to note as many of the laws around voting rights and accessibility have made it easier for people with disabilities to vote. Voting laws that affect people with disabilities include The Help America Vote Act (HAVA); The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA); Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); The National Voting Rights Act; and The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act. Passed in 1965, the National Voting Rights Act states that you cannot make voters pass a reading test to vote and that you have the right to have a person help you vote as long as they are not your boss or a person from your labor union. Even today, you can still have someone come with you to the polling place and support you or even ask a poll worker for support to vote.
Passed in 1984, the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act required polling places in federal elections to be physically accessible to people with disabilities, and if no accessible location is available, an alternative method of casting a ballot on Election Day must be provided. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which was passed in 1990 and revised in 2008, extended protections to state and local elections under Title II. The ADA has specific guidelines for accessibility of the voting area including the check-in and voting station, parking, passenger drop-off, accessible routes of travel, ramps, elevators, building entrances, and possible hazards caused by protruding objects. The ADA regulations also include accessibility requirements for voter registration, polling site selection, and casting your ballot.
The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) was passed in 1993 to make it easier for all Americans to exercise their right to vote, and it addressed the historically low registration rates of minorities and persons with disabilities due to discrimination. It required all offices of state-funded programs that are primarily engaged in providing services to persons with disabilities to provide them with voter registration forms, help them complete the forms, and send the completed forms to the appropriate state official. The NVRA allows people to register to vote when they get their driver’s license, which is why the law is also referred to as the “Motor Voter Law.”
Finally, the Help America Vote Act, enacted in 2002, ensures you have the right to vote privately and independently. The law also requires that all polling places must have at least one accessible voting machine and booth that can be used with or without supports. These booths must be wheelchair accessible and offer ways for people who are blind or have low vision to have access to the voting machine. It also includes the right to assistance from poll workers who are trained to use accessible voting machines and the right to bring someone with you to assist in voting.
Barriers to Voting
Societal and legal barriers to voting remain. In the 2008 election, the Government Accountability Office estimated that only 27% of polling places were accessible. In 2016, two-thirds of 137 polling spaces inspected that year had a least one impediment to people with disabilities. These impediments included polling places with stairs, accessible voting machines that were not turned on, poor access to privacy, earphones that did not work, and paper ballots that required more assistance from others. Poll workers may discourage people with disabilities from voting, as they may feel uncomfortable and not trained to assist people with disabilities. This is reflected by a Rutgers University Voter participation survey that showed a decline in voter participation of people with disabilities from 57.3 percent in 2008 to 56.8 percent in 2012 and another drop to 55.9 percent in 2016. While voter participation is down overall, a lack of polling place accessibility could be a contributing factor.
Another factor is people with intellectual disabilities may be barred from voting because of “incompetence laws.” In many states, a person is considered mentally incompetent with disabilities ranging from schizophrenia to Down syndrome. This is especially true for persons with intellectual disabilities under guardianship. Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia have laws that strip voting rights for people with mental disabilities who are deemed incapacitated or incompetent by a court of law. There are an estimated 1.5 million people under guardianship according to AARP. It is difficult to know how many were stripped of their rights since guardianship is loosely monitored. This process of stripping people of voting rights is still arbitrary without concessions from legal and psychological experts. No set standards exist for looking at voting abilities.
How to Increase Voter Participation
So how can we make sure voter participation increases for people with disabilities? First, make sure that people under guardianship are not stripped of their right to vote so readily. It is important to have a legal standard before denying someone their right to vote. Make registering to vote more accessible, such as allowing people to register online. Some groups argue for automatic voter registration. Better training of poll workers is essential in supporting people in general and particularly people with disabilities. Regular review and monitoring of polling place accessibility should be conducted by an oversight group.
We can boost participation further by increasing the number of accessible voting booths at polling places. Expanding early voting can make it easier for people who need additional time to vote. The option for mail-in ballots helps people who are not able to make it to their polling place or need extra time to understand issues. It also gives voters an alternative way to participate in the voting process. The advent of allowing voting online, provided there are safeguards to protect the voter’s identity and the legitimacy of the election, could be another way to increase voter participation of people with disabilities.
Community participation is one of the four goals of the ADA. The voices of people with disabilities must be heard in our democracy. Voting accessibility is essential to ensuring equal rights. There have been many gains in making sure that our votes are recognized but we still have a long way to go. We must continue to look at ways to ensure that those in the disability community who want to vote can do so.
Centers for Disease Control Infographic: Disability Impacts All of Us; 2019. cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/infographic-disability-impacts-all.html
U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section; The Americans with Disabilities Act and Other Federal Laws Protecting the Rights of Voters with Disabilities; 2014 ada.gov/ada_voting/ada_voting_ta.htm
Smith, S.E.; 'We Want YOU to Support the Disability Vote (A Voting Accessibility Guide)'; Rooted in Rights; 2018. rootedinrights.org/we-want-you-to-support-the-disability-vote-a-voting-accessibility-guide
Government Accountability Office; Voters with Disabilities: Observations on Polling Place Accessibility and Related Federal Guidance (GAO-18-4); 2017. gao.gov/products/GAO-18-4
Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations Fact Sheet: Disability and Voter Turnout in the 2008 Elections; 2009. sabeusa.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/Fact-Sheet-Disability-and-Voter-Turnout-in-2008-Elections-1.pdf
Vasilogambros, Matt; ‘Thousands Lose Right to Vote under Incompetence Laws’; PEW; March 21, 2018. pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2018/03/21/thousands-lose-right-to-vote-under-incompetence-laws
Vasilogambros, Matt; ‘How Voters with Disabilities are Blocked from the Voting Box’; PEW; February 1, 2018. pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2018/02/01/how-voters-with-disabilities-are-blocked-from-the-ballot-box Voters with Disabilities are Blocked from the Voting Box’</a>; PEW; February 1, 2018. pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2018/02/01/how-voters-with-disabilities-are-blocked-from-the-ballot-box