Making the vote more accessible

By Steph Ryde

The right to vote has always been something that I have taken for granted. As a non-disabled, white, cis woman I have never had an issue requesting or casting my ballot.  So I admit that I was shocked and surprised as I researched disabled access to the vote: how is it that in 2016, 137 polling places were reported as having an impediment restricting people with disabilities from voting?

How is it that people with disabilities made the trip to the polls only to find the accessible machines turned off, missing pieces, broken or altogether missing? How it is that polling places are still located in buildings that are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations, up large hills or inaccessible by public transport?

To me, this is blatant voter suppression and it doesn’t end there. 

According to a Pew Trusts study in 2017, half of all Americans cast their ballot on paper with many polling places moving to paper ballots due to cybersecurity concerns.  While many non-disabled people wouldn’t think twice about picking up a pen, this can be a huge barrier to someone with limited mobility.  

Then there are voters with invisible and mental disabilities.  In our nation’s capital, individuals were being intimidated at the polls by being asked if they “really needed to use the accessible machines.”  To combat this, they trained their poll workers to ask everyone voting if they would prefer to vote on paper or using the machine, a measure that increased turnout of individuals with disabilities by 2% in 2018.  As for people with mental disabilities, 11 states still have outdated and vague regulations that allow the court to bar individuals from voting who are deemed ‘idiots’, ‘insane persons’ or people who are under guardianship.  Regulations such as this are estimated to have barred over 32,000 people from the polls in California alone.

While this picture may appear bleak, there are many states that are taking action to make voting more accessible.  There are also two bills currently in motion.  The first — HR.1, also known as the For the People Act of 2019 — would expand voting access as well as make the voting process more fair for all Americans.  This bill passed the House and is currently with the Senate, but Mitch McConnell has stated that he does not plan to bring it to a vote.  

The other bill is HR.865, the Rebuilt Schools Act 2019, which would improve voting access in schools that serve as polling stations. It would also increase training, including training on disabilities, for polling-station workers and volunteers.  

As an oversees voter, you can start by calling your senators and representatives to support these two bills.  You can also call the polling station in your voting district and ask about its accessibility.  Thank them if they have taken measures to be accessible to all, and emphasize the importance of change if not.  

Finally you can support the American Association of People with Disabilities’ efforts to advocate for voting accessibility by making a donation here. To see where all of the 2020 candidates stand on disability, accessibility and inclusions, check out the Disability Rights Center’s survey here.

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