States Are Making It Tougher for Disabled Folks to Vote

Thanks to postal voting, mailboxes and roadside elections, people with disabilities will be represented in record numbers in the 2020 election. That will likely change.

Ramin Talaie / Corbis / Getty

It has long been difficult for Americans with disabilities to vote. Inaccessible paths are an obstacle for wheelchair users. Long lines are a major hurdle for people with chronic pain. Voting machines without audio or large printed ballot papers are an obstacle for the blind or visually impaired. But something else happened last year: when states passed pandemic reforms to make it easier for everyone to vote, they inadvertently made voting a lot easier for most people with disabilities.

And they voted. Nearly 62 percent of Americans with disabilities voted in 2020, up nearly 6 percentage points from 2016 or 1.7 million more voters. The number of disabled voters who report difficulties in voting has also decreased significantly; In 2020, according to a report by the Election Support Commission, 11 percent of voters with disabilities said they had problems, up from 26 percent in 2012. That’s not to say that voting was suddenly easy: postal ballot papers aren’t easier for everyone, including people with visual or cognitive disabilities. And in 2020, Americans with disabilities were still about 7 percent less likely to vote than non-disabled Americans. But the changes made a real difference.

Now state policy wants to turn back time. Citing exaggerated concerns about electoral fraud, state lawmakers have passed a wave of new bills that will make it difficult for disabled people to vote in future elections. In total, legislators in 49 states this year have tabled more than 400 bills that would restrict access to voting for people with disabilities. At least 18 states have already passed such laws. These laws either target postal ballot papers, reduce the time voters need to apply for or submit ballot papers, limit the availability of dispensaries, impose stricter signature requirements for postal voting, or issue new and stricter ballot papers. ID requirements.

Are the drafters of these bills intentionally trying to incapacitate disabled voters? The truth is more nuanced and perhaps darker: people with disabilities are usually excluded from the conversation altogether. “These kinds of laws are being written without even thinking about how they will affect people with disabilities – until we talk about them and talk about our experiences and how laws like this will affect us,” said Michelle Bishop, the manager of voter access and engagement with the National Disability Rights Network, told me. “People with disabilities are very often collateral damage in these conversations.”

For example, SB 7 in Texas would ban drive-through voting, which would cause trouble for immunocompromised people who are unable to enter a polling station without endangering their health. Likewise, SF 173 in Minnesota would require voters to show ID to vote in person, adding to the burden on people who do not drive; In addition to being transported to the voting booth, they would first need to go to a government office – which may or may not be accessible – to obtain the required ID. And in Wisconsin, AB 201 would prevent non-military voters from automatically receiving a postal vote, making it difficult to vote for those unable to vote in person, whether due to immunodeficiency or chronic pain.

The intentions of the legislature are irrelevant, said Andrés Gallegos, chairman of the National Disability Council, an independent federal agency: “Regardless of the intent, any law that restricts the ability of individuals to vote by postal vote and / or the number of dispensaries is for ballot papers will disproportionately affect the ability of people with disabilities to cast a vote. “

Some of these bills and voter integrity laws are purposely aimed at people with disabilities. These measures are based on long-standing prejudices, said Bishop: “That these people are not intelligent, or are not up to date, or do not have a firm grip on reality and that someone is simply trying” to influence them … If you have enough people with disabilities knows, you know that this is simply not true. “

For example, a Texas law, HB 3920, requires disabled voters to sign a statement declaring their inability to vote in person in order to receive a postal ballot, but it specifically rejects illness as a basis for that statement away. As a result, immunocompromised people may have to risk putting their health at risk by voting in person, says Dominic Kelly, a senior fundraising manager at Fair Fight Action, a Georgia-based national voting rights organization.

Many argue that the intended effect of these bills is to suppress the voices of people of color. But if you restrict access to colored voters, voters with disabilities will also be excluded. Statistically, a higher proportion of black Americans (one in four) and Native American and Alaskan Natives (three in 10) are disabled than the proportion of white Americans (one in five).

Others argue that while these bills may be inconvenient, it is a small price to pay for greater electoral integrity. But what may seem trivial to some may be insurmountable for people with disabilities, Gallegos told me.

Congress could enact federal laws that would mitigate the effects of these state laws. Some provisions of the For the People Act would increase accessibility requirements at polling stations and expand access to early voting and same-day voter registration. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would protect voters by preventing states from making restrictive laws. So far, however, none of the bills seem close to being passed.

Some changes that helped disabled voters in 2020 are retained. At least 54 bills extending voting rights have been signed in 25 states. One of those states, North Carolina, made postal voting permanent through an online system for voters with disabilities after experimenting with the measure during the 2020 election. And more than 900 bills have been tabled in 49 states that would expand electoral access. But without Congressional action, disabled Americans’ access to voting will continue to depend on where they live.

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