People with Disabilities: Vote as if Your Life Depends on It, Because It Does

As recently as the presidential election of 2000, we learned how important a few hundred thousand votes could be. The nationwide gap between candidates totaled just 543,895 votes. According to a recent Stanford Law School study, Contemporary Voting Rights Controversies Through the Lens of Disability, the actual number of potential voters not casting their ballot due to a disability may be five times that number – over 3 million votes not cast in every election for myriad reasons, but primarily because of the lack of accommodation for a disability.

The overall numbers are even more disappointing: According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, of the 18 million registered voters with a disability, more than 60% of those individuals reported not casting a vote in 2014.

If only a small percentage of those voters had made it to the polling place, the election outcome could have been different. The author of the Stanford study, legal historian Rabia Belt, says that

“Despite the significant and growing population of voters with disabilities, they do not vote in proportion to their numbers. We can consider voters with disabilities as “the canaries in the coal mine,” the people who are an advanced warning of the structural difficulties in voting not just for themselves, but also for the system as a whole. Solving problems in voting for people with disabilities will strengthen the entire system and will help improve the voting process for everyone, especially people from disempowered communities.”

Ms. Belt’s study provides a compelling manifesto for National Disability Voter Registration Week, going on now. It shows that voters with a disability are not getting to the polling place because of various and often simple reasons, such as raised sidewalk curbs that pose hurdles for those using wheelchairs or walkers. And for voters with visual impairment, ballots are not designed with their needs in mind, often requiring these voters to enter the polling booth with a someone to assist them. As a result, voting privacy is compromised.

On the bright side, we are doing much better than in years past. According to the 2013 findings of the Government Accounting Office, polling places were far more accessible in 2008 than they were in 2000. The GAO estimated that 27% of polling places had fewer impediments in the path from the parking area to the voting area – compared to 16% in 2000.

The question is, How can we do better? What are we doing to design better systems for voters with a disability so that we can ensure that all voters with a disability cast their ballot?

The primary mandate of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 is to improve access for individuals with physical disabilities. We believe that a call to action is in order towards the rapid execution of that decree. This week, July 11-15 2016, is National Disability Voter Registration Week. We hope that you will consider contacting your state, county or local election board about improving access for voters with a disability. Make sure these boards are following the ADA Checklist for Polling Places.

For more information about voter registration and people with disabiliteis, visit the National Disability Voter Registration Week site.

Blog post by HDA summer fellow Stacy Koumbis