States are making it harder for disabled people to vote
Thanks to absentee ballots, drop boxes and curbside voting, people with disabilities participated in record numbers in the 2020 elections. That is likely to change.
It has long been difficult for Americans with disabilities to vote. Inaccessible roads are an obstacle for people who use wheelchairs. Long lines are a major obstacle for people with chronic pain. Voting machines without audio or large print ballots are a deterrent for those who are blind or have low vision. But something different happened last year: As states passed pandemic-driven reforms to make voting easier for everyone, they inadvertently made voting much easier for most people with disabilities.
And vote, they did. Narrowly 62 percent of Americans with disabilities voted in 2020, to increase of almost 6 percentage points during 2016, or 1.7 million more voters. The number of disabled voters who reported having difficulty voting also dropped significantly; In 2020, 11 percent of disabled voters reported having problems, up from 26 percent in 2012, according to a Report of the Electoral Assistance Commission. That’s not to say voting was suddenly simple: mail-in ballots they are not easier for everyone, including those with visual or cognitive disabilities. And in 2020, disabled Americans were still roughly 7 percent less likely to vote than Americans without disabilities. But the changes made a real difference.
Now state lawmakers want to turn back the clock. Citing exaggerated concerns about voter fraud, state lawmakers have passed a wave of new bills that will make it harder for people with disabilities to vote in future elections. In general, legislators have introduced more than 400 bills in 49 states this year that would restrict voting access for people with disabilities. At least 18 states already have passed such laws. These laws target mail ballots, reduce the amount of time voters have to request or send a mail ballot, restrict the availability of drop-off locations, impose more stringent signature requirements for vote-by-mail, or enact voters. newer and more stringent. Identification requirements.
Are the authors of these bills intentionally trying to disenfranchise disabled voters? The truth is more nuanced, and perhaps bleaker: People with disabilities, for the most part, are completely left out of the conversation. “These kinds of laws are written without even thinking about how they are going to impact people with disabilities, until we go out and start talking about our experiences and how legislation like this is going to impact us,” Michelle Bishop, manager of access and voter participation in the National Network for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, he told me. “People with disabilities are often collateral damage in these conversations.”
For instance, SB 7 in Texas it would prohibit direct voting, which would create difficulties for immunosuppressed people who cannot enter a polling place without putting their health at risk. Equally, SF 173 in Minnesota it would require voters to provide identification to vote in person, which would increase the burden on people who do not drive; In addition to finding transportation to the voting booth, they would first have to go to a government office, which may or may not be accessible, to obtain the necessary identification. And in Wisconsin AB 201 It would prevent non-military voters from automatically receiving an absentee ballot, which would make voting more challenging for those who cannot physically vote in person, either due to being immunosuppressed or in chronic pain.
Legislators’ intentions are irrelevant, Andrés Gallegos, president of the National Disability Council, an independent federal agency, told me: “Regardless of intent, any law that reduces people’s ability to vote by mail and / or decreases the number of of the ballot drop-off sites will have a disproportionate impact on the ability of people with disabilities to cast their vote. “
Some of these voter integrity laws and bills intentionally target people with disabilities. These measures are based on long-standing biases, Bishop told me: “That those people They are not smart, or they are not with the times, or they do not have a firm grip on reality and that someone will simply try to influence them … If you know enough people with disabilities, you will know that that is simply not true. “
For example, a Texas law, HB 3920, requires disabled voters to sign a statement declaring their inability to vote in person in order for them to receive a ballot by mail, but explicitly rejects illness as the basis for that statement. As a result, immunosuppressed people may have to risk endangering their health by voting in person, says Dominic Kelly, senior fundraising manager at Fair Fight Action, a national voting rights organization based in Georgia.
Many argue that the intended effect of these bills is to suppress the votes of people of color. But when it reduces access for voters of color, voters with disabilities are also excluded. Statistically, a higher proportion of African Americans (one in four) and Native Americans and Alaska Natives (three in 10) are disabled than the proportion of white Americans (one in five).
Others argue that while these bills may present drawbacks, that is a small price to pay for greater electoral integrity. But what may seem trivial to some may be insurmountable for people with disabilities, Gallegos told me.
Congress could enact federal laws that would mitigate the effects of these state laws. Some provisions of the By the Law of the People it would increase accessibility requirements at polling places and expand access to early voting and same-day voter registration. The John Lewis Voting Rights Promotion Act it would protect voters by preventing states from enacting restrictive laws. However, neither of the two bills appears to be close to passing so far.
Some changes that helped disabled voters in 2020 will stick. At least 54 bills that will expand voting access have been signed into law in 25 states. One of those states, North Carolina, made absentee voting through an online system permanent for voters with disabilities after experimenting with the measure during the 2020 elections. And more than 900 bills have been introduced that would expand access to vote in 49 states. But in the absence of congressional action, disabled Americans’ access to the vote will continue to depend on where they live.