People with disabilities are less likely to vote than people without disabilities, according to the National Disability Rights Network, a nonprofit advocacy group. In fact, a Rutgers University study found that only 49.3% of people with disabilities voted in 2018, compared with 54% of those without disabilities—a 4.7 percentage point difference or “participation gap.” And that disparity, advocates say, may be largely due to access.
In a 2017 report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the majority of polling places impeded disabled people’s ability to vote. Problems then included long lines, steep ramps, inaccessible wheelchair paths and limited or remote parking places. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated voting barriers for people with disabilities, especially those who are immunocompromised or living in long-term care facilities that formerly hosted polling locations but won’t this year.
The GAO’s findings were based on the 2016 election, when most people voted in person. This year, more people voted at home than ever before. And for some voters with disabilities, that shift marked a significant increase in accessibility. Such voters could avoid physical obstacles, as well as exposure to the virus, by staying out of polling places altogether.
Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to making voting accessible for all. Wheelchair users may require ramps to access polling places, while visually impaired voters might need Braille absentee ballots. Still others may require audio ballots or sip-and-puff devices to vote independently.
Despite the expansion of mail voting, some people with disabilities may prefer to vote in person.
Mail voting makes casting ballots easier for many but may not increase accessibility for visually impaired voters or those with limited motor control. While some states offer large-print or Braille ballots, others have considered electronic delivery and ballot marking methods for at-home use. In Massachusetts, for example, a disabled voter can receive an emailed link to a unique ballot, which the voter then digitally marks. The system allows voters to magnify the text or have the ballot read aloud.
To increase the accessibility of mail voting, the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) recommends allowing voters with disabilities to request ballots online and providing them with self-sealing, prepaid envelopes for ballot return.
Many states now offer some form of curbside voting, which improves accessibility by allowing voters to cast ballots from their vehicles with poll workers taking the unmarked ballot to the voter and returning the marked ballot to the polling place. In Ohio, for example, curbside voting is allowed at polling places that don’t meet accessibility standards. This year, though, the secretary of state temporarily expanded curbside voting to all locations. The American Association of People with Disabilities and other disability rights groups are advocating for states to make such expansions permanent.
Despite the expansion of mail voting, some people with disabilities may prefer to vote in person, using accessible voting technology located at a polling place so they can cast ballots privately and independently. In fact, every polling place in the nation is required by the Help America Vote Act of 2002 to offer at least one accessible voting option to meet the varied needs of people with disabilities. Poll worker training, however, needs to include the use of such devices. (Several voters with disabilities recounted technical difficulties with accessible machines in Texas.) If technologies exist but can’t be operated, they don’t truly improve accessibility. Such training also needs to include ways to prevent disability discrimination, according to Michelle Bishop of the NDRN in an interview with Forbes.
The 2020 election saw a swift expansion of voting options, and as states consider which changes to keep and which to abandon, the needs of voters with disabilities will be among their considerations.
Amanda Zoch is a Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow and policy specialist in NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.
This piece is part of NCSL’s yearlong celebration of ADA30, and ongoing partnership with State Exchange on Employment & Disability (SEED), part of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy SEED partners with intermediary organizations like NCSL to ensure that state and local policymakers have the tools and resources they need to develop and disseminate meaningful policies related to disability-inclusive workforce development.