It's 2014, But It's Still Difficult For People With Disabilities To Vote
Voting Access Often Difficult For Disabled Americans
The Huffington Post | By Kim Bellware Posted: 11/04/2014 6:28 pm EST Updated: 11/04/2014 6:59 pm EST http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/04/voters-with-disabilities_n_6102132.html
The SF Examiner | By Jessie Lorenz
For many American voters with disabilities, simply getting to their polling place on Tuesday is only the beginning of their struggle. As a result, voter participation has consistently been lower among citizens with disabilities, resulting in less-representative elections.
“I talk to people who have disabilities who just don’t vote anymore," Martin Odian, a longtime elections officer in Menlo Park, California, told The Huffington Post on Tuesday. "It’s too frustrating and too hard to get in.”
A 2013 report authored by Rutgers professor Lisa Schur for The Presidential Commission on Election Administration said that among people with disabilities who had registered to vote in 2012, only 82.1 percent of those actually voted; by contrast, 87.5 percent of registered voters without disabilities had voted. The report went on to say there could be as many as 3 million more voters with disabilities if they voted at the same rate as "otherwise-similar people without disabilities...
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Section 3839, of the 1895 Political Code of California read as follows: “Every male inhabitant of this State, over twenty-one and under sixty years of age, except paupers, insane persons and Indians, must annually pay a Poll Tax of two dollars.”
It used to be that paying a poll tax was a precondition to exercising the right to vote and nothing short of decades of fierce struggle by dreamers from all walks of life changed that fact. The disability-rights movement, which started in the Bay Area in the 1970s, undertook a similarly monumental task: To redefine what it means in society to be disabled. Before then, disability was seen as a set of limitations that prevented function within society by the individual.
The disability-rights movement has recast disability, instead, as a problem of society being rigidly designed in ways that exclude people with disabilities. The solution is to fix society. These concepts were, and remain, revolutionary...
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"The trouble with voting is, today is it. There’s no do-over tomorrow," Curtis Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network told The Huffington Post. "If people are denied their right to vote today, they’ve been disenfranchised.” Odian, who identifies as having a learning disability himself, said that in the 12 years since the passing of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which ushered in sweeping reforms aimed at improving voting systems and voter access, improvements have been negligible in the voting experience for people with disabilities.
"Just a few years ago, we had to take the [voting unit for people with disabilities] from our site out to the parking lot so someone could vote at the car,” Odian said.
Even though there's more awareness about voting challenges for people with disabilities, attorney Melissa Picciola with the Chicago-based group Equip for Equality said voters with disabilities "continue to report the same issues year after year."
Despite national election laws like HAVA in place, Decker said the problem trickles down to the local level, where elections are governed by hyperlocal elections boards. Decker said accessibility can be especially difficult in smaller towns and rural areas where polling stations are often located in church basements, clubs and private homes.
Beyond a lack of physical accessibility to a polling place, electronic voting machines can also pose a problem. HAVA-mandated machines used for federal elections and meant to assist people with visual impairments or other disabilities can sometimes malfunction, but small towns in particular may not have backup machines to dispatch. In other cases, Picciola said, "voters with disabilities commonly report that the machines aren’t set up, or that the election officers don’t know how to operate them."
For voters with obvious developmental disabilities, Decker said discrimination by election judges who don't think they're eligible is another common issue that can discourage people at the polls.
Even voting laws that purport to curb voter fraud can have the unintended consequence of further disenfranchising voters with disabilities. Decker cited Texas, with its strict voter ID laws, as just one example.
"Voter suppression is a big deal," Decker said. "The biggest population of people without drivers licenses are people with disabilities.”
And though voters with disabilities are a minority, Abilities United Associate Director Sheraden Nicholau notes they're a significant one. "And," Nicholau added, "it’s the only group that any one of us can become a member of at any moment in our lifetime."
Nicholau went on to say that at least 16 percent of the population is considered to have a physical, developmental or learning disability, while the 2010 U.S. Census puts the figure as high as 19 percent, or one in five Americans.
When it comes to changing the voting experience for Americans with disabilities, Decker said relying on absentee voting is not the answer -- visibility is.
"With absentee voting, we lose the PR function of the fact that the disabled community is a powerful voting block," Decker said. "We’re losing that ability to say to the candidates, 'Hey, you need to pay attention to this disability vote.' It’s very, very powerful. We spend billions and billions on disability programs, yet you never hear candidates talk about them in their debates."
Cathryn Cudlick, history professor at San Francisco State University, says, “There weren’t any laws that explicitly said, ‘You have a disability, so you can’t vote,’ but a presumption that someone was able-bodied was built into the actual voting practices. Disability is at the heart of all thinking about inequality. Women were thought to be irrational and hysterical, African Americans were thought to be intellectually inferior, and many times throughout our histories, the supposed disabilities of different ethnic groups have been evoked as justification for restricting the right to vote.”
The civil-rights movement was instrumental in broadening voting rights to many groups of people. Literacy tests and poll taxes — not to mention threats and violence — had made voting an unrealistic feat for many marginalized populations. One of the crowning achievements of the civil-rights movement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, deemed such actions illegal. As of 1965, citizens with disabilities gained the legal protections necessary to ensure the right to vote. Unfortunately, getting through the front door of the polling place is often still an issue. In 1975, the act was amended to include people who couldn’t read or write in English well enough to participate. In 1982, the act was amended again with a provision that allowed people who were “blind or otherwise disabled” to bring an assistant of their choice to help them vote. In 1984, the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act further expanded accessibility, requiring polling places to have auxiliary aids (such as larger print) available to people who had physical disabilities. In addition, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and the 2004 Help America Vote Act codified many of the regulations necessary to providing equal access to the vote.
According to a new poll conducted by Respect Ability and published by the Huffington Post, “The majority of likely American voters are experiencing disability, either because they have a disability or have a loved one who does. It impacts voting, and elected officials need to pay attention.”
While conventional wisdom has long held that disability rights are the purview of the Democratic Party, the poll shows otherwise. Among likely voters with disabilities, 31 percent are Democrats, 31 percent are independents and 36 percent are Republicans. Clearly, this represents the ultimate swing-vote group. This community is far bigger than many people realize.
Now is the time for candidates to bring forward their plans so that all Americans, regardless of their abilities, have the opportunity to work and to succeed. After all, the right to democratically participate in public life is the foundation upon which this country aspires to have been built — let’s make it a reality.
Jessie Lorenz is executive director of the Independent Living Resource Center San Francisco.