Voting is often viewed as one of the most tangible—and most important—exercises of human rights. Yet for the 33.7 million Americans with disabilities who are of voting age, this hallmark human right is far too often made extremely difficult or denied.
The lack of coverage and action to ensure full voting agency to citizens with intellectual and physical disabilities is astounding. As Michael R. Blood from PBS NewsHour put it:
“At a time when election officials are struggling to convince more Americans to vote, advocates for the disabled say thousands of people with autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy and other intellectual or developmental disabilities have been systematically denied that basic right in the nation’s largest county.”
Barriers to voting for those with disabilities is not new. For years, people with intellectual impairments have been excluded from national political discourse. Falling upon harmful stereotypes of mental health and deemed as “mentally incompetent,” the roots of this issue date back past 1860 when thirty-four of the states in the Union did not allow “insane people” or “idiots” to vote. Moreover, in more recent years, many have criticized the accessibility of voting booths for those with physical disabilities. A staggering study in 2000 showed 43 out of 44 polling places in upstate New York inaccessible for voters using wheelchairs and a similar research in 2001 found that only three percent of percent of Philadelphia’s 1,681 polling places were wheelchair accessible, forcing voters to either cast absentee ballots or find other accessible polling booths outside of their district.
Although the last couple of decades have seen significant measures taken to try and alleviate barriers and mandate accessibility, the problem still persists. As a study by Rutgers University showed, in the 2012 elections the voter turnout among people with disabilities was 5.7 percent lower than people without disabilities. In total, there would be over 3 million more voters if people with disabilities voted at the same rate as people without disabilities who are otherwise similar in age and other demographic characteristics.
Problems With Non-Accessibility
Following disenfranchisement, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 is an important tool enacted by Congress for people with disabilities to combat discrimination inside and outside the voter booth. The ADA a federal acts as a measure of civil rights law that provides protections to people with disabilities and defends against discrimination. More specifically, Title II of the ADA requires state and local governments to provide people with disabilities equal access to their right to vote. This includes accessible voter registration, site selection, and the casting of ballots, whether on Election Day or during an early voting process.
Ensuring that persons with disabilities have equal access to registration is key. This is why, two decades later, we need to take measures to re-enforce the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA). Recognizing alarmingly low voter registration rates among people with disabilities, Congress enacted the NVRA to enhance and maintain voting opportunities for this population. The act requires all federal and statewide offices to provide assistance in voter registration programs that are inclusive and to register persons with disabilities equal to all Americans. Registration however, is often only a small part of the bigger problem of lack of accessibility.
In many cases, poll booths are unequipped or unprepared to accommodate persons with disabilities. From voting stations that cannot be adjusted to lower heights to serve citizens in wheelchairs, to hectic and loud environments that can be overwhelming to people with anxiety and mental developmental disorders, to voting equipment that is unable to address individuals who have hearing or vision impairments: the list of ways in which people with disabilities often encounter barriers when trying to cast their ballot goes on and on.
In addition, social and political stigma play a large role in the struggle to attain full respect and voting rights for people with disabilities. This stigma is especially prominent among citizens with autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, and other intellectual developmental disabilities.
A recent case in California shed light on this pattern. In 2014, the Disability and Abuse Project filed a Voting Rights Act compliant with the U.S. Justice Department arguing that those with cognitive and developmental disabilities have been systemically and wrongly excluded from the electoral process.
Yet the problem of keeping people with mental disabilities away from the voting booth extends far beyond California. Although our understanding of mental and developmental disabilities has matured and become more nuanced over time, our policies concerning their right to vote have not. Thirty states and the District of Columbia have specific laws in place in their state constitutions that declare that anyone who has been ruled mentally “incapacitated” or “incompetent” by a court unable to register and cast a ballot.
As a 2007 report for the American Bar Association put it: “Excluding the broad and indefinite category of persons with mental incapacities is not consistent with either the constitutional right to vote…or the current understanding of mental capacity.”
How You Can Help
Often times, small changes can make a big difference in ensuring people with disabilities have full and equal access to their right to vote. Helping fill out absentee ballots or checking that local polling locations and parking lots are wheelchair accessible can mean the difference between a person being able to cast his or her ballot or not.
“There is this constant struggle to make sure everyone can vote privately and independently, regardless of disability,” National Disability Rights Network executive director Curtis Decker said.
As Americans, it is essential to do everything we can to allow those with disabilities to be active participants in our electorate.