Life with MS

Voting While Disabled

By Kara Skorupa

As the television ads with hopeful politicians begin to blare, we are all reminded that 2020 is an election year. Voting is one of the most precious rights we have, and yet, there is a significant amount of people within the disabled community whose voices will not be heard. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 26 percent of adults in the U.S. are living with a disability of some sort; that’s roughly 61 million disabled individuals of voting age. Despite the sheer number of affected Americans, people with disabilities vote about 6 percent less than those without. Why the disparity? Obstacles. The Government Accountability Office reviewed polling places in the U.S. and found 60 percent of those reviewed had at least one impediment to voters with disabilities. Let that sink in for a minute – 60 percent of polling places were non-compliant with federal law.  

There is not just one federal law which protects the right to vote for disabled people; there are many. Among them are the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, the Help America Vote Act of 2002, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Most of us are at least somewhat familiar with the ADA, which provides all sorts of protection in and outside of the voting booth as it applies to voter registration, site selection, and early voting. Under Title II of the ADA, state and local governments are required to ensure that the disabled citizenry have full and equal access to voting, but the historically low voter turnout among the disabled population belies these supposed protections.  

While most voters concentrate on choosing a candidate to support, how to fill out the actual ballot, what hours the polling places are open, and the like, disabled voters have myriad additional worries. Disabled voters often have transportation problems that leave them unable to physically get to their polling place. Many disabled voters are unable to stand in the all-too-common long lines at polling places. A large portion of disabled voters report difficulty physically accessing polling places because of the layout of the building. Disabled voters are more likely to not possess all of the required identification in order to vote. Some disabled voters are unable to read and/or fill out a ballot without assistance. The list of potential obstacles is daunting.

Just as each disabled voter has unique challenges, the barriers differ from polling place to polling place, but there are some common problems. According to the Department of Justice, the five most common physical barriers at actual polling places are parking, sidewalks/ walkways, building entrances, interior hallways, and the voting area itself. For example, a voter who uses a wheelchair drives to her local polling station. When she arrives, will there be accessible parking? “Accessible parking” means spaces with adequate access aisles and signs, not on a sloped surface, and because other entrances (as opposed to the main entrance to the building) are commonly used as entry points to the polling place, permanent accessible parking may not be close to the entrance to the voting area.  

If our wheelchair user does find accessible parking, she then has to navigate a walkway to get to the entrance. Under the ADA, sidewalks must be at least 36 inches wide, without abrupt level changes (no level change greater than half-an-inch), and the surface must be stable, firm, and slip resistant, but often, the sidewalks at polling places are in disrepair or are packed with other voters standing in line.  

Back to our wheelchair-using voter, if she were able to get to the entrance, is that doorway wide enough to accommodate her wheelchair?  All door openings must provide a minimum width of 32 inches and there must also be enough room for a person using a wheelchair to maneuver to open the door, including 18 inches of clear space beyond the latch side of the door. In older buildings, a barrier must only be removed if it is “readily achievable,” so it is possible for a polling place to be housed in an older building that does not provide the requisite width.  

Assuming our wheelchair user can get through the door, she then must navigate the hallways. It is not uncommon for schools and churches to be used as polling places, and as such, there are often obstacles in the hallways, such as water fountains, fire extinguishers, and other fixtures which become hazardous not only to those with mobility challenges, but also those with vision deficits. While the ADA enumerates the requisite measurements for these fixtures in hallways, the reality is that most polling places will not remove a water fountain or other fixed item. 

Finally, if our wheelchair user makes it to the voting area, she must navigate through the check-in area and then on to the voting booth. The ADA requires a minimum 36-inch wide route in and through the voting area. There also must be enough clear floor space in at least one voting station or booth to allow a voter using a wheelchair or other mobility device to approach, maneuver, and leave the voting station. Check-in areas are often crowded with poll workers as well as other voters lining up, and that can produce an obstacle in and of itself for wheelchair users even if, hypothetically, that 36-inch route did exist prior to voting times.  

Let’s talk about solutions. Although we cannot ensure that every polling place will be accessible or that every poll worker will be well-trained, there are three ways to make sure that your vote counts: early voting, absentee voting, and voting by mail. In 39 states and the District of Columbia, there are provisions that allow a person to vote before Election Day without requiring any justification; the time period for early voting may vary even within a state, so it is important to check the early voting days in your specific jurisdiction. Every state will provide an absentee ballot if requested, but 17 states require a reason why a person is requesting to vote in that manner. In addition, there are seven states plus the District of Columbia which will allow a person with a permanent disability to always vote absentee, although some jurisdictions require proof of the disability, such as a doctor’s note. Lastly, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington conduct all elections by mail. A ballot is automatically mailed to every registered voter in advance of Election Day, and traditional in-person voting precincts are not available, but these states still provide one or more locations for voters to return mail ballots, and vote in-person if they would like. 

Voting while disabled requires advance planning, knowledge of your rights, and a good amount of patience. While the disabled community has made significant strides in society, we still lag behind our nondisabled counterparts when it comes to voting. If you have specific questions about your own voting challenges, contact your local Supervisor of Elections, and be heard. Your vote is your voice – use it.