7 Ways New Voting Laws Can Affect People With Disabilities. A July 13, 2021, Opinion piece in the Washington Post, by Katrina vanden Heuvel, offered a rare look at a comparatively neglected aspect of the current fight to preserve voting rights: safe, flexible, and accessible voting for people with disabilities. It’s a perspective well known in the disability community, but seldom covered as strongly in the “mainstream” press.
As states take action to more tightly regulate and restrict voting methods, many within the disability community and outside it are taking notice, and see significant risks ahead to disabled people’s right and access to the vote.
“There are hundreds of anti-voter bills in states across the country that would present barriers to disabled people voting privately and independently,” says Dom Kelly, founder and leader of Fair Fight Action’s Disability Council. He adds, “Most of the new anti-voter laws we have seen enacted in a number of states will make voting more difficult for disabled folks.”
These threats are not solely or even primarily targeted against voters with disabilities, though the new and proposed measures themselves would significantly hamper disabled people’s actual access to voting. The more familiar focus has been on two intersecting and overlapping trends:
- Making voting more difficult and cumbersome in ways that disproportionately affect Black voters, other voters of color, and low income voters.
Measures prompted by a conviction, repeatedly shown to be unfounded, that voter fraud is a significant problem –– an idea vastly intensified by the mostly partisan belief that the 2020 Presidential election was “stolen” from Donald Trump through voter fraud.
These are not separate problems from voting accessibility for disabled people. Many disabled voters are also people of color, low income, and have other marginalized identities that make their voting status additionally fragile. And disabled voters are no less invested in secure and honest vote-counting than anyone else.
A toolkit on voting rights and access from the American Association of People with Disabilities and the #RevUp disabled voter registration campaign identifies several types of measures that directly affect disbaled voters’ access to an unfettered and independent vote, including:
- “Restricting access to mail-in voting
- Increasing voter ID requirements
- Reducing opportunities to vote
- Reducing voter registration opportunities
- Limiting the availability of ballot drop boxes
- Purging registered voters”
Dom Kelly of Fair Fight Action, who has Cerebral Palsy himself, notes that these threats are not remote or speculative. He cites already passed and pending measures in Florida, Georgia, and Texas that would add layers of repeated bureaucracy to vote by mail requests, and in some cases narrow the criteria and raise the bar for disabled people to even qualify to vote by mail. A Texas proposal would even permit poll watchers to go so far as to enter a disabled person’s vehicle to watch them fill in their ballot in curbside voting. This takes vigilance to extreme and intrusive lengths that are hard to imagine any voter tolerating, even if it was the only practical way they could cast their vote.
Here are 7 types of policies, considered in some states, already passed in others, that hinder disabled people’s ability to vote freely, independently, and safely. Again, 7 Ways New Voting Laws Can Affect People With Disabilities.
1. Voter ID requirements
The most frequently used form of photo identification is a driver’s license. And a higher proportion of disabled people than average don’t drive, and don’t have a driver’s license. This creates another bureaucratic task for many disabled people, the need to acquire an acceptable form of ID.
While this may seem like a small task to most observers, it’s important t0 remember that bureaucratic tasks themselves are often harder for disabled people, who may encounter barriers in finding transportation to government offices, difficulty completing forms, and even complications sending and receiving postal mail.
For many people with disabilities, additional voter ID requirements simply add another layer of logistical difficulty in the voting process –– another choke point where a disabled person’s drive to vote can be disrupted.
2. Eliminating or reducing early voting
As already noted, many disabled people can’t simply hop in the car and drive to their local polling place when the moment is convenient for them. Many must rely on public transportation, long treks over streets and sidewalks of unreliable accessibility, and help from friends, relatives, or neighbors.
That is why it is often even more difficult for disabled people to complete multi-step logistical tasks, like getting to and from a polling place, when it can only be done on a particular day in a limited time. Early voting over a span of days makes it easier to schedule or reschedule transportation, and any assistance that a disbaled person might need.
And if logistical problems crop up, or a disabled person doesn’t feel well on the day they originally planned, early voting means they are more likely to be able to try again on another day. A single day of voting offers little or no margin for error or mishap –– another way disabled people’s path to a vote can be narrowed or even closed off.
3. Narrowing options for mail-in and absentee voting
While many disabled people feel strongly about voting in person, others have always used absentee voting, rather than risk potential problems at inconsistently accessible and poorly staffed polling places. In fact, one of the long-standing implicit arguments against making polling place accessibility a priority is the idea that a disabled person can simply vote by absentee.
In their report on disabled voter participation in the 2020 election Lisa Schur and Douglas Kruse of Rutgers University found that the expansion of available mail-in voting in some states helped increase disabled voter turnout.
While absentee voting shouldn’t be offered instead of accessible polling places, it should always be as free and simple an option as possible, as it reduces many of the logistical and scheduling problems with on-site, Election Day voting. Scaling back the expansion of mail-in voting, or making it even harder than before the pandemic, would close off yet another more accessible method of voting for people with disabilities. It’s a step that seems even less necessary considering the fact that absentee ballots has been a part of the voting process for many decades. It is a time-tested method, not a radical new idea.
4. Eliminating ballot drop-boxes
While mailing an envelope is in some ways easy and low-cost, few people these days use postal mail, and many don’t have stamps on hand, or have easy access to a mailbox or post office. Drop boxes are another option for disabled people to deliver absentee ballots, and may be more reliable than postal delivery.
Using a drop box can be easier than mailing in certain circumstances. And again, more options is always better for disabled people than fewer.
5. Prohibiting on-site aide for people waiting at the polls
Disabled people who do go to properly accessible polls with fully trained poll workers usually find it a relatively easy, in-and-out process. But some districts in some areas are chronically overrun with voters, resulting in long waits in line.
Almost any kind of disability makes waiting for a long time to vote exponentially harder, and for some outright impossible. A disabled person with every intention to vote may well simply go home if they literally cannot face a 2 hour wait in line. And once you give up on Election Day, there may be no other way to vote. The small window of opportunity is closed.
Being able to get a drink of water or a snack from a volunteer can make a big difference, or all the difference. From this perspective, prohibiting this kind of basic, non-political aide to people at the polls seems not just petty, but a real deterrent to voters with disabilities.
6. Paper-only ballots
One idea that enjoys wide bipartisan support is a “return” to paper-only ballots. This is seen as more secure than voting involving machines or electronics. And paper ballots are understood to be less prone to tampering, especially for those who have an instinctive distrust of digitial and internet technology.
But paper ballots pose a specific problem for some disabled voters.
As the National Council on Independent Living notes:
“A paper ballot mandate would not allow for complete privacy and independence for voters with disabilities. It prohibits fully digital voting which allows voters to read, mark, verify, and return their ballot completely electronically.“
Paper ballots are not reliably accessible to blind and visually impaired voters, or those who physically can’t make a paper ballot with a pen. And current paper ballot proposals don’t adequately address this problem, including the paper ballot provisions in the For The People Act, which in other ways would protect the right to vote and voting accessibility. The fact than this otherwise very promising and progressive bill still fails to ensure accessibility for all disabled voters is unfortunate but not uncommon. Disability activists have to remain vigilant at all times in the legislation process, no matter which party or ideology they are working with.
7. Making Election Day a holiday
It’s not only more “restrictive” measures that would harm disabled people’s access to voting. Even measures fully intended to make voting easier for everyone could have perverse effects on disabled voters.
Many disabled people have no other way to get to the polls than to use public transportation. Many others rely on personal care staff and other government workers in the community to be able to complete multi-step tasks outside the home.
That’s why making Election Day a holiday could actually make getting to the polls and back harder for disabled people who depend on workers who will themselves have the day off to vote. It’s another example of a well-intended idea that has the right goal, but lacks key input from the disability community.
Almost any changes in voting laws and regulations that add steps and requirements, or narrow options for how and when to vote, will discourage disabled people from voting. Even when these changes don’t actually prevent a disabled person from voting, they make voting harder.
When you tell a disabled person that there’s only one acceptable way to do a thing, at a very specific time and place, that poses a very real accessibility problem. It’s the same when you add more steps to any task. Disabled people in particular need to be able to do typical things in different ways, with fewer intermediate steps. It’s different for every disabled person of course, but more options, fewer steps is fundamental to just about every aspect of disabled life, including the fundamental right and indispensable civic function of voting.
Like most other disabled activists, Dom Kelly wants voting systems that ensure disabled people’s right to vote “privately, independently, and fairly.”
His vision for voting that is truly accessible to people with disabilities includes:
- Being able to choose how to cast their votes from among several options of location, timing, and method;
- Proper training for poll workers so they treat disabled voters with due respect and ensure a smooth and independent voting experience;
- Disabled people involved in designing truly accessible and independent voting systems that encourage voting rather than just meet “the bare minimum” of technical accessibility.
None of this is incompatible with secure voting free from undue influence. And all of it is essential to making sure eligible disabled people have both the right and practical access to vote. Now you know the 7 Ways New Voting Laws Can Affect People With Disabilities.
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