By August Johannsen
Laws affecting voter participation are a current hot topic in the news. Voter identification, early voting, or redistricting laws are all working their way through the legal system almost certainly on their way to the Supreme Court (if they have not reached the high court already). There are mixed opinions on what these laws do. Supporters insist that the laws protect the integrity of elections by preventing voter fraud. Opponents vehemently argue that the laws are simply pretense for stopping poor and minority voters from exercising their rights at the polls. However, one group of minority voters, voters with disabilities, are severely impacted by election administration laws regarding the accessibility of elections. Their story has been largely ignored in the sound-byte thrusts and parries of the politicos and pundits.
In today’s political discourse, people seem to care more about the Democrat-Republican horserace for control of Congress. But denying voters with disabilities an equal opportunity to vote, denies these voters an opportunity to influence public discourse on the important issues that too often fall by the wayside – especially issues that people with disabilities have a particular interest in, such as transportation subsidies or Medicaid funding. While laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Help Americans Vote Act (HAVA) attempt to address the problem of increasing access to polls, there is still much that needs to be done. Luckily there are several simple steps that can be taken to help re-enfranchise people with disabilities.
One way to increase participation by voters with disabilities would be to dismantle or loosen voter identification laws. The strictest voter identification laws require state or federal government issued photo identification cards, such as a driver’s license, passport, or valid (unexpired) military ID. However, the biggest population of people without a driver’s licenses is people with disabilities. Other commentators have outlined, in great detail, the impact voter ID laws have on voter turnout. But the discussion is usually focused on the elderly or minority voters. People with disabilities make up a significant (and inter-demographic) segment of the population and should not be ignored in discussions about voter access laws – if people with disabilities, who represent 1 in 7 voting-age people, voted at the same rate as voters without disabilities, there could be as many as three million more voters.
Another relatively easy way to ensure election access would be to adequately train poll workers. In many places, poll clerk training is minimal, at best. Even in a fairly sophisticated urban jurisdiction such as Los Angeles County, poll workers may but are not required to attend a two-hour long training class. After minimal training, poll-workers are expected to understand the intricacies of voter eligibility, voter ID laws, how the voting machines work, what to do if a voting machine stops working, how to handle provisional ballots, and any of the other myriad problems that could come up on election day. Discrimination by poorly trained poll workers is a significant problem that voters with disabilities face, especially those with an obvious developmental disability. Similarly, because most voters with disabilities vote absentee to avoid the hassle and problems associated with voting at the polling station as a person with a disability, poll workers may not even set up the one accessible voting machine they are assigned, or use it as a coat rack. Poorly trained poll workers may also not know how to assist a blind or deaf voter that needs assistance with casting a ballot, but is still entitled to casting that ballot secretly and accurately. Unfortunately, some voters with disabilities have been forced to tell poll workers how they wish to vote and then hope that the poll worker fills out the ballot properly. These problems could be easily fixed with adequate training and sufficient emphasis placed on the rights of people with disabilities in that training.
Finally, one of the most pernicious problems is physical inaccessibility of voting machines or polling places. Even after the ADA and HAVA, many polling places are still in inaccessible locations. For example, in New York, in 2013, a woman that used a wheelchair was forced to fill out her ballot outside, on the hood of a car, because her wheelchair would not fit through the door to her polling place. In fact, in New York in the 2012 Presidential election, volunteers visited 132 poll sites in Manhattan and Brooklyn and found that only 24 were fully accessible. Obviously, planning an election is complicated. Finding locations that are appropriate as a polling place that are convenient to voters and are properly accessible is a monumental task. But, multiple state and federal laws require polling place accessibility inspection standards that require officials to change polling places to accessible locations. This is a seemingly easy way to increase participation among voters with disabilities, but election boards apparently still struggle with it because there are always reports of inaccessibility affecting voters, up to 40% of polling places in 2012.
Loosening voter ID laws, increasing training, and ensuring that polling places are physically accessible are three relatively easy ways of helping people with disabilities exercise their right and civic duty to vote. All three would certainly face political or budgetary pushback, but all three are necessary to enfranchise vulnerable members of society. With a more enfranchised population of voters with disabilities, more representational elections are possible. With more representational elections, the empowering effects of self-advocacy are possible.