Ready, Willing, and Able—to Vote: An Overview of the Issues Faced by People with Disabilities in Voting

Harry Baumgarten
Jul 14, 2016
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This week marks the first ever National Disability Voter Registration Week, which seeks to mobilize the 30 million people with disabilities who are eligible to vote and draw attention to the unique challenges they face.

The United States has made some strides to increase the ability of voters with disabilities to participate in the electoral process. In total, Congress has passed at least five laws in the past 35 years designed in some way to improve disability access to the polls: (1) Section 208 of the Voting Rights Act (1982); (2) the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act (1984); (3) Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990); (4) the National Voter Registration Act (1993); and (5) the Help America Vote Act (2002). Collectively these laws help ensure that people with disabilities have greater ability to register to vote, access polling places, and use voting machines.

These measures have also been somewhat successful in making it easier for people with physical disabilities to vote. According to a 2013 GAO study, between 2000 and 2008 the number of polling places with no potential impediments to voting increased dramatically from 16 to 27 percentage points. During the same period, the number of polling places with four or more impediments decreased from 29 to 16 percentage points. This is a significant change in a relatively short timeframe.

However, we still have a long way to go in fully ensuring that members of the disability community can participate in the political process on equal terms with members of the broader electorate. For example, a different 2013 study found that people with disabilities voted at a rate 5.7 percentage points lower than that of people without disabilities. It also found that people with disabilities registered at a rate that was 2.3 percentage points lower than that of people without disabilities. These lower rates are due to the heightened barriers that people with disabilities face in registering and voting.

Our legislative responses have also been limited in their ability to help people with disabilities. For example, the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act requires voter registration facilities and polling places to be accessible to the elderly and those with disabilities. However, it only applies to federal elections. While the Americans with Disabilities Act may extend similar provisions to state and local elections, it can be difficult to enforce, does not apply to religious institutions ( which often serve as polling locations), and holds schools to the lesser standard of program access, rather than full access. Finally, although the Election Assistance Commission has been very supportive of voting opportunities for those with disabilities, its standards for voting machines are only voluntary and quite outdated.

Those with developmental disabilities are particularly at risk of voting-related abuses. Families are often unaware that their children may have their right to vote taken away by virtue of seeking a limited conservator to manage the finances, medical treatment, and personal affairs of a loved one with disabilities. To further complicate matters, each state has its own legal standard governing when those subject to conservatorship are permitted to vote. However, the question  of when a person subject to some form of conservatorship is permitted to vote may ultimately turn on a judge’s personal preferences. This belittles those with disabilities and risks systematically disenfranchising people with shared characteristics from the political process. Imposing additional qualifications to voting for people with disabilities also risks violating provisions of the Voting Rights Act, which bars tests and devices when voting.

Yet, accommodating and including those with disabilities should not be hard. Many of the same reforms that would make voting easier for all would also benefit those with disabilities. These include online voter registration, early voting, and vote-by-mail. While further accommodations will of course be necessary, policymakers would be wise to look for ways to accommodate people with disabilities in ways that empower them and are firmly rooted in principles of equality, fairness, and full participation in our democracy. 

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