Today is an offseason Election Day in Michigan, where the vast majority of voters will submit ballots by mail as state officials close polling locations and urge people to stay home due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Michigan’s decision to embrace voting by mail is good news for voters who would rather not risk visiting a crowded polling site or are confined to their homes in the first place, and election officials are already reporting above-average turnout. However, blind and visually impaired voters were nearly left out of the election.
Last week, two blind advocates for disability rights filed a lawsuit against state election officials alleging that blind voters cannot use Michigan’s absentee voter system, which consisted of paper ballots that must be filled out in writing and mailed by hand. Offering only paper absentee ballots would force blind and visually impaired voters to find a sighted person to read and fill out the ballot for them – which violates the right to vote privately – or vote in-person at one of the few polling places that remain open.
On Friday, just a few days before the election, the plaintiffs struck a deal with election officials and agreed to a temporary fix. For now, blind and visually impaired voters in Michigan can request electronic absentee ballots typically reserved for members of the military and other voters overseas that can be read by software programs known as screen readers. Screen readers allow users to read the text displayed on a computer screen with a speech synthesizer or a braille display.
Voting rights advocates say election officials must expand access to mail-in ballots to preserve democracy during the epidemic. Vote-by-mail systems are associated with higher voter turnout, and higher turnout is thought to generally benefit Democrats, which may explain why the common-sense push to expand voting by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic has met with strong resistance from Republicans and President Trump. However, voting by mail raises fresh questions about ballot access for people living with disabilities, who already struggle to exercise their right to vote in districts across the country.
“We confuse accessibility with proximity,” said Imani Barbarin, a disabled voter and host of the new online video series, Vote for Access, in an interview. “Just because it’s closer to you means it’s more accessible, but it’s not for those with sensory disabilities.”
Vote for Access examines efforts to remove barriers that prevent disabled people from voting — and how these barriers intersect with the broader problem of voter suppression. Voter ID laws are known for targeting lower-income voters and voters of color, but disabled voters are overrepresented in the same populations that are less likely to have a photo ID, according Michell Bishop, a voting rights specialist at the National Disability Rights Network.
Bishop said a photo ID can be difficult to obtain for those with limited financial resources or physical mobility, and people with certain disabilities can be stripped of their right to vote altogether. In some jurisdictions, people can lose their right to vote if they are deemed “mentally incompetent” or “insane” by a judge, and these outdated, stigmatizing labels can be pushed on people with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
If disabled people in the United States voted at the same rate as nondisabled voters, an estimated 2.3 million more votes would be cast, according to Barbarin and Vote for Access. Vote for Access features interviews with poll workers, researchers and disabled voters across 14 states, and activists like Barbarin are working to jumpstart a national conversation about ballot access that goes far beyond the current partisan debate over voting by mail.
“What’s unique about the disabilities community is that we’re one of the only communities where you can be prohibited from voting just because you are a person with a disability,” Bishop says on an episode of Vote for Access. “People particularly with developmental disabilities or people who are living with mental illness can be legally stripped of their right to vote. It’s really based in unfortunate and outdated stigma against people with disabilities.”
Barbarin told Truthout that, generally, “disabled people don’t decide to not vote; there are barriers in the way.”
Nationally, only 17 percent of polling places were fully accessible to people with disabilities in 2017, according to the Government Accountability Office. Vote for Access reports that transportation options are often limited or nonexistent, and accessible electronic voting units are frequently nonfunctioning or in need of repair. Websites detailing candidates and ballot issues are not designed for universal access; they may not work well with screen readers used by the blind, for example. And there is a dearth of American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters in the media and government, making it difficult for voters who primarily speak ASL to stay informed.
For example, caretakers and poll workers may be too overwhelmed to help a disabled person register and cast a vote. People living with developmental disabilities and mental illness are particularly vulnerable to this kind of stereotyping, and people with physical disabilities also face stigma about their intellectual capacity.
“Voting is participating, and in a country that so often relegates disabled people to institutions, isolation, and stereotypes, participation is powerful,” Barbarin says on the first episode of Vote for Access. “However, some folks just don’t think disabled people should vote. I think those people should be quiet.”
“One negative stereotype is that people think people with disabilities are not educated on politics. I am very educated on politics,” says Jack, a disabled voter in Alaska who speaks through an interpreter on Vote for Access. “I want politicians to realize that we are one fifth of the voting population, and you need to hear what we have to say.”
This brings us back to Michigan, where blind voters must fill out a special application by 4 pm today in order to get an electronic ballot and vote in today’s election, which primarily covers education and school funding referendums in more than 30 counties statewide. The last-minute lawsuit that spurred this makeshift accommodation does not ask for monetary damages; indeed, lawsuits seeking enforcement of the American Disabilities Act are often last-ditch efforts to make businesses and elected leaders consider people with disabilities in the first place.
“I am proud we collaboratively identified a temporary solution to expand voting access for blind citizens in Michigan,” said Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, in a statement to the media. “I am confident we will continue our work to successfully identify and implement a long-term solution as well.”
Barbarin and other advocates say disabled people should be able to vote with proper supports and without misguided judgements about their capacity. When disabled people are cut out of the political process, they are less likely to be prioritized by political leaders or run for office themselves. The end result is further disenfranchisement.
While voting by mail can make it easier for more people to vote, Michigan is just one example why absentee ballots are no panacea when it comes to ensuring that people with disabilities can vote. Vote for Access looks at several innovations that could benefit disabled voters as more states consider alternatives to physical polling places. Maryland and Oregon are considering electronic ballots delivered with a link over email, and Delaware and West Virginia are deploying online cloud-based voting systems for disabled voters and members of the military, according to reports.
Still, Barbarin said disabilities advocates are constantly working to improve access to the ballot and public information, and people with disabilities advocate for themselves every day. Election officials looking to improve access — and avoid emergency lawsuits — should get input from the disabilities community every step of the way.
While the COVID-19 pandemic is generating plenty of buzz about “internet voting,” some cybersecurity experts are concerned about election hacking. However, voting rights groups say the country’s aging voting infrastructure is already vulnerable and in desperate need of updates. The COVID-19 stimulus package passed by Congress in March provides $400 million in grants to help states to run elections during the pandemic, but a new report from a coalition of think tanks on the right and left argues that that is not nearly enough to ensure ballot access and secure results nationwide.
“Our intent is to get more people voting and also make people aware of just how prevalent this is nationwide,” Barbarin said.