Protecting the Voting Rights of People with Disabilities
In this blog, we feature a conversation about voting rights for people with disabilities between Commissioner Aaron Bishop, of the Administration on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (AIDD), and Melvenia Wright, a program specialist with the Administration for Community Living (ACL) who manages grants related to the Help American Vote Act (HAVA).
Commissioner Bishop: Melvenia, I thought I’d check in with you as Election Day is here again. Voting is one of the founding principles of democracy, but research shows that over the past two decades, the voter turn-out rate for people with cognitive disabilities has been 18 percent lower than for the typical voting population. Have things gotten any better for people with disabilities who are trying to exercise their constitutional right to vote?
Ms. Wright: Well, progress is slow. States face a variety of competing priorities and increasing access to polling places may not always make it to the top of the list. About 25 states have laws that, through a court designation such as guardianship, limit the voting rights for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. On the other hand, some states, such as Colorado and New Hampshire, have laws the specifically protect an individual’s right to vote regardless of guardianship status.
Commissioner Bishop: What is the federal government doing to support voting rights for people with disabilities?
Ms. Wright: We have over 100 HAVA-authorized grants in place and we see real progress especially in states in which the state’s Office of the Secretary of State (the entity responsible for administering the voting process) is collaborating with the state’s protection and advocacy agencies. Both of these entities receive grant funding to help ensure accessible voting for people with the full range of disabilities.
Commissioner Bishop: What are the greatest barriers to allowing access to voting for people with the full range of disabilities?
Ms. Wright: Generally speaking, the three biggest problems are physical barriers that prevent access to polling places; a lack of training for poll workers who are often volunteers; and voting equipment that does not support the needs of people with the full range of disabilities. This includes visual and hearing impairments, mobility limitations, and intellectual disabilities. For example, many people with cognitive disabilities report having difficulty reading or seeing the ballot and understanding how to use the equipment. With that said, I should note that there are many differences among states. The challenges facing one state may be very different than those facing another. Secretaries of state control and administer the voting process in their states and often they have different resources, priorities, and administrative practices.
Commissioner Bishop: Are promising practices emerging from the work of our HAVA grantees?
Ms. Wright: Yes, a couple of practices stand out. The first is a thorough assessment of access issues. Such an assessment identifies the population of voters and the kinds of support that are necessary as well as the major access issues across the state’s polling places. The second is a well-developed plan to expand access in ways that address the specific needs of the state in general and even specific polling places. We have found that these two elements, when combined with cooperation between each state’s secretary of state and the protection and advocacy agencies, can have a real impact on expanding access to voting for people with the full range of disabilities.
Commissioner Bishop: Is training and technical assistance available?
Commissioner Bishop: Where should people with disabilities go if they are having trouble exercising their right to vote?
Ms. Wright: The first step is to contact their secretary of state’s office. This office should be able to provide information about any special programs or procedures in place for people with disabilities, information on physical access to polling places, as well as the availability of accessible voting equipment. If they are still encountering problems, they should contact their local protection and advocacy agency.
Commissioner Bishop: We can’t end this conversation without mentioning why the HAVA programs exist. In spite of the difficulty people with disabilities may face, voting is very important. People with the full range of disabilities need to have their voices heard in local, state, and national elections. Often the first step to making a polling place more accessible occurs when a person with a disability tries to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Tomorrow is another opportunity to make the voices of people with disabilities heard and to make voting more accessible for everyone. Please vote, and remind those you know to go out and vote!
ACL welcomes your feedback. Please share your voting stories with us. To learn more about the experience of voters with disabilities in previous election cycles, see the National Council on Disability report at www.ncd.gov/publications/2013/10242013/.