In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, to make it easier for Americans with disabilities to vote and to do so “independently and privately.” More than a decade later, 1 out of 5 Americans with disabilities report that they have faced legal, physical and attitudinal barriers to voting, according to a survey of nearly 900 people by the National Council on Disability (NCD), an independent federal agency that advises Congress and the President about disability issues.
HAVA was to be implemented along with existing laws “to prohibit voter discrimination, suppression, intimidation, and denial of voting access for people with disabilities, coupled with the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and building upon the mandate of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” The NCD’s report makes it quite clear that voters with disabilities — physical as well as intellectual and mental — face numerous obstacles.
1. Voters with disabilities encounter architectural and physical barriers at registration and polling sites.
Polling sites that do not meet ADA standards for accessibility prevent many voters with disabilities from casting a ballot or make the experience of doing so excessively difficult. Almost 40 percent of voters with disabilities reported that their polling place was physically inaccessible.
As Clyde Terry, a member of the NCD, writes,
Many states sidestep voting accessibility by emphasizing absentee voting, voting by mail or curbside voting where poll workers actually meet people with disabilities at their vehicle with a ballot. Although the availability of these voting options should not be discouraged outright, neither should they become the only option for people with disabilities simply because physical and other barriers to casting a vote have been ignored, or that laws already passed have not yet been implemented.
According to the Federal Election Commission, more than 20,000 polling places across the nation are inaccessible, in clear violation of state and federal laws.
2. Voting machines are not accessible.
Almost half of voters with disabilities said that technology to assist them in voting was inadequate. Even though “all state jurisdictions” received HAVA funding to upgrade their voting apparatus, including accessible voting machines, the NCD found that voters with disabilities said they were denied an equal opportunity for voting access “because of voting machines that malfunctioned, were broken, were unavailable for use, or that poll personnel were unable to demonstrate or operate.”
The NCD recommends that both state and local governments should be encouraged to “maintain universally designed, accessible voting machines that are available, functioning, and situated to provide complete privacy for voters with disabilities.” Oregon, for instance, has used iPads outfitted with software to accommodate voters with disabilities.
3. Voters with disabilities encountered discriminatory attitudes at polling places.
1 in 5 voters with disabilities told the NCD that they were kept from casting their ballot on their own by election personnel or volunteers. They also reported encountering condescending, rude and/or pejorative attitudes due to poor training by election personnel or volunteers.
The NCD calls not only for much improved awareness and sensitivity to voters with disabilities in training for election personnel, but also for more individuals with disabilities to be hired to work at polling places. In particular, anyone who works at an election site must be knowledgable about “the voting rights of people with disabilities, the local voting system, and the requirement to provide all presenting voters with the opportunity to cast a private, independent ballot.”
4. The HAVA and ADA exist and must be enforced.
The federal government must encourage states and local governments to “maintain universally designed, accessible voting machines that are available, functioning and situated to provide complete privacy for voters with disabilities.” Both the federal government and the Department of Justice are charged to ensure that federal policies regarding voting are carried out at the state and local levels; to make it clear that laws like the HAVA and the ADA exist and will be enforced.
5. More states are restricting when an individual with disabilities who is under guardianship can vote.
Individuals with intellectual, mental and other disabilities may be placed under the guardianship of another person if they are judged incompetent or otherwise unable to function independently in regard to their daily living skills, finances and other areas.
Some states (Colorado) do not restrict those under guardianship from voting while others (California) do. Some states have outdated laws on their books; New Jersey’s law does now allow those who are “idiots” or “insane” to vote. In all, 15 states and the District of Columbia prevent individuals from voting on the basis of what are often arbitrary and flexible definitions of “mental incapacity” or guardianship status. In these states, individuals under guardianship must petition a judge to let them vote.
The NCD calls on state and local governments to review and, where needed, modify guardianship laws to ensure that individuals with intellectual and mental disabilities are not deprived of their right to vote.
As Terry writes,
While not an obvious slight to voters with disabilities, the problems become more apparent when one considers the fact that no other voting group, however uninformed, have to demonstrate any kind of “voting competence,” in which an individual may be required to explain the voting process, detail their political views or provide the names of federal, state or local officeholders – the disparate treatment of voters with disabilities becomes clear.
While “physical barriers are perhaps the easiest to imagine,” other reasons that voters with disabilities are unable to cast their ballot are “inaccessible technology, stigma and attitudinal barriers.” These still “continue to have a chilling effect on civic participation of Americans with disabilities,” Terry writes.
Voting is, as Terry underscores, ”the most fundamental right of all Americans.” It is imperative that every American, of every sort of ability, be able to exercise this right and face neither physical barriers nor, certainly, stigma about their disability.
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