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Disabled Voters Face Extra Obstacles to the Ballot Box

The vast majority of US polling locations are not fully accessible. Disabled activists are working to change that.

A view from the voting area as voters cast their ballots at a polling location at the Oakridge Elementary school in Arlington, Virginia, on March 5, 2024.

When Kenia Flores was studying for her bachelor’s degree at Furman University in South Carolina and wanted to vote in her hometown election in North Carolina, she needed an absentee ballot. However, she soon discovered North Carolina did not offer accessible absentee ballots for blind or print-disabled individuals. This left Flores, a blind voter, in the position of either sitting out the election or compromising her right to cast her ballot privately and independently by asking a friend to mark it for her.

“That made me very uncomfortable, because it’s a vulnerable position to be in — there is no way for me to verify that the individual marks my ballot as I specified, and unfortunately, that was my only choice if I wanted my vote to be counted,” explains Flores. She is now a Voting Access and Election Protection Fellow at Detroit Disability Power (DDP), an organization committed to building the political power of the disability community.

As the general election nears, disability-led organizations like DDP are scaling up their efforts to combat common barriers to the ballot box for disabled voters. While one in four adults nationwide has a disability, there remain significant gaps in voting access for this demographic. Disabled organizers bring unique expertise rooted in lived experiences to the work of improving voting access and forging a more inclusive democracy. The landscape they are working in is a difficult one given the nation’s patchwork, state-led voting system that demands a unique strategy for countering voter suppression in each state.

Research has shown that the vast majority of polling locations nationwide are not fully accessible, meaning they each have potential impediments for people with disabilities to cast votes. Many states also have restrictive voting laws, such as those that limit absentee voting, eliminate Election Day registration, or make it more difficult to vote early in person. These rules are most burdensome to disabled voters and also voters of color. Over 11% of disabled voters reported facing difficulties voting in the last general election, despite the expansion of mail-in voting as a pandemic precaution.

“The disability community is often forgotten, even by progressive organizations or those that are working to contact voters,” says Lila Zucker, organizing director at New Disabled South (NDS), a disability rights and justice nonprofit organization working across 14 states in the U.S. South. Over 20% of the population in the South is disabled — the highest rate in the nation.

The region is also rife with disenfranchisement as Republican-led states concoct new election-related crimes and toughen punitive measures. Last year, Voting Rights Lab, an organization that tracks election-related legislation nationwide, identified a “siege on voting access” in North Carolina. Neighboring Georgia made national headlines in the run-up to the 2022 midterm election for a bill that criminalized passing out food or water within 25 feet of voters waiting in line at a polling location (a federal judge struck down that provision on First Amendment grounds last year, but it was upheld during the midterms).

Recently, lawmakers in Alabama passed Senate Bill 1 (SB 1), which criminalized the act of assisting disabled voters with filling out or delivering their absentee ballot applications. A similar bill was enacted in Mississippi last year. While DDP’s Flores wanted to mark her ballot without support when voting absentee in college (and she should have had the option of an accessible ballot to do so), disabled voters in other states may depend on support that could result in criminal charges under these laws. These differences point to the fact that disabled voters are not a monolith and have different needs.

Fighting legal battles and passing new legislation could make a significant difference in reducing voting barriers for disabled Americans. The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging many discriminatory voting laws in court, including Alabama’s SB 1. One of the ACLU’s coalition partners in that lawsuit is the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program (ADAP). “For many voters with disabilities, absentee voting may be the only practical option to be heard and have their voices counted, [and] SB 1 poses additional barriers to this critical right,” said William Van Der Pol Jr., senior trial counsel for ADAP in an April press release announcing the lawsuit.

While lawyers are fighting to roll back restrictive legislation, some policymakers are also working to improve voting access through new federal legislation. Past legislative gains, like the 2002 Help America Vote Act, furthered access for disabled voters by requiring that every polling place nationwide have equipment for disabled people to vote independently and privately, including an accessible voting terminal.

The Accessible Voting Act, reintroduced in the U.S. Congress earlier this year, could be an even greater leap forward. If passed, it would establish an Office of Accessibility within the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, create a national resource center on accessible voting, expand options for disabled people to cast their ballots in federal elections, and improve the accessibility of voting information and resources. Another bill, the Removing Access Barriers to Running for Elected Office for People With Disabilities Act, was reintroduced in the same package. It would protect disabled people who want to run for office from being disqualified for receiving disability benefits or losing those benefits when they run.

Sarah Blahovec, co-founder, co-director, and president of Disability Victory, which has endorsed the legislation package, says both bills are “part of an ecosystem of ensuring that disabled people have access to the ballot box.” While Blahovec’s organization focuses on training, networking, and leadership development for disabled progressive candidates, she wonders, “How can we get more disabled people to run for office if they can’t actually get to the polls?”

Dessa Cosma, executive director of DDP, emphasizes that these legal struggles are not just for disability rights. “When we expand voting rights for disabled people, it helps everyone,” she says. “When we restrict voting access, it hurts everyone, but it disproportionately hurts disabled voters.”

While legal battles may offer longer-term solutions to the barriers facing disabled voters, other organizing efforts are focused on working within the imperfect system we have now to ensure as many disabled people as possible can access the vote.

At DDP, Flores and Cosma are focusing on making polling locations more accessible. The organization has been conducting poll-access audits since 2018, collecting data on common issues that could prevent disabled people from casting a ballot at their local polling location. In 2022, DDP ran the largest poll-access audit in U.S. history, auditing 261 polling locations across 15 jurisdictions in Metro Detroit, serving about 1 million Michigan voters. The audit consists of a 23-question survey that evaluates polling locations across four categories, including having an accessible parking area, an accessible entrance, an accessible voting system, and accessible voting booths. Sites are labeled inaccessible if they fail in at least one of the four categories.

In 2022, 84% of the polling locations that DDP visited failed the audit. This number tracks with a nationwide government study conducted in 2017 with a smaller sample size, which found that 83% of surveyed sites were inaccessible. While the results are grim, Cosma says, “Many of these are no-cost, low-cost fixable problems.”

Of the 218 polling locations that failed DDP’s 2022 audit, 67 fell short in only one of the four categories. Many of them could have passed the audit if they had added signage to help voters find the accessible entrance, reoriented accessible voting booths to give voters privacy, or just remembered to plug in the accessible voting machine. If those polling locations remedied that one failed category, the percentage of polling places that were accessible would jump from 16% to 42%.

To help polling locations address their access barriers, DDP shares its audit data and builds relationships with election officials. Flores says the data “allows the clerks to have a better understanding of what access barriers look like.” Following its record-breaking poll-access audit, DDP created a toolkit so other organizations can replicate its methods in districts outside Detroit without starting from scratch.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. South, NDS is partnering with voter registration, education, and turnout efforts to make their strategies, promotional materials, and volunteer and staff opportunities more inclusive of disabled people. Zucker says one of their suggested interventions is that organizations visit congregate settings, such as sheltered workshops and nursing homes. “One of the biggest things is meeting disabled voters where they’re at,” she explains.

Efforts such as these can ensure more disabled voters have their voices heard on critical issues during this November’s election. “Many disabled folks depend on systems that are guided and regulated by people that we elect to office, like home- and community-based services or the condition of roads, sidewalks, and public transportation,” explains Zucker. “Disabled people also exist at the margins of lots of different intersecting identities, so a lot of the issues that matter to everyone in this country matter to disabled voters.” Issues that are on the minds of all voters, like poverty, policing, and climate change, are acutely felt within the disability community. Disabled people experience poverty at twice the rate of nondisabled people and are more vulnerable to police violence and the effects of climate change.

To build political power on these issues, Cosma says, disabled people “have to have access to our democracy.”

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