The right to vote is one of our most cherished civil rights in the United States. As someone born into US citizenship, my 18th birthday was one of my most exciting, not for many of the usual reasons, but because I could vote. The thought of having voting rights actively taken away from anyone, or passively restricted, makes my blood boil. Fortunately, I’m not alone; many other people in the United States fervently believe that the right to vote should be protected, including the President’s Commission on Election Administration, which just published a detailed overview on voting in America.
One of their most important and disturbing findings was that not everyone with the legal right to vote is able to exercise it. While many people are aware of voter ID laws and other voter suppression tactics being used to keep minorities from the polls, the issue of voting rights for disabled people isn’t as widely covered. Unfortunately, many disabled Americans are being deprived of the right to vote by a simple and very fixable problem: accessibility.
Imagine how differently a polling place would feel if you had to navigate it in a wheelchair, or with a walker, cane, or crutches. Think about how your voting experience might change if you were blind, or had cognitive disabilities that made it difficult to comprehend the ballot, even though you know the issues. What if you had chronic fatigue or a terminal illness that made it challenging to get to the polls in the first place? Some disabled Americans are faced with tremendous obstacles when they try to access the polls, and they shouldn’t be. The commission found that the problems they identified were not only easy to spot, but also wholly solvable.
Some specific accessibility needs include polling places with ramps, booths with enough room to accommodate a power chair or other supplies that a disabled person might need, and voting equipment designed to allow blind and low vision voters to vote in privacy. No one should be forced to sit in the middle of a busy polling place while a worker reads a ballot aloud and promises to mark the voter’s choices — but it’s happened to blind and low vision voters.
Of special concern, the commission noted, is the rise in the use of electronic voting equipment, and the potential for a ‘crisis in voting technology’ which would make it even harder for disabled voters to exercise this most fundamental of civil rights.
Some of their recommendations included online voter registration to make it easy and fast for disabled people to register, as well as better training of poll workers so they know how to interact with disabled voters and how to help them successfully cast their ballots. The commission also recommended creating accessibility checklists for voting places and creating an auditing system to ensure that they remain committed to accessibility, creating a long-term framework that will normalize access in polling places across the United States.
Far from being a fringe or minor issue, polling place accessibility is a considerable and growing problem. In addition to the disabled members of the U.S. population (one in seven U.S, voters is estimated to have accessibility needs, according to the report), there’s also a growing elderly population, which benefits from many of the same needs. Accommodations and access benefit almost everyone at some point during their lives, and are typically very low-cost to implement. For these two reasons alone, it’s time to act on polling place accessibility and ensure that everyone — and that means everyone — is heard at the polls, especially this year, with a critical midterm election on the horizon.
Photo credit: Eden.