A holistic view to election accessibility will help increase turnout among voters with disabilities.
The number of voters with disabilities who reported difficulties with voting dropped from 26% in 2012 to just 11% in 2020 according to a study on voting accessibility commissioned by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC). However, the 11% reported by people with disabilities is double the rate reported by voters with no disabilities. This is movement in the right direction, but the data still show that voting is more challenging for those with disabilities than for those without.
According to the EAC report researched by Drs. Douglas Kruse and Lisa Schur of Rutgers University, five of six (83%) voters with disabilities cast their ballot independently without any difficulty in 2020. Reported difficulties among those who cast ballots in-person at a polling place or election office dropped significantly, from 30% in 2012 to 18% in 2020. Among those who used mail ballots, just 5% reported experiencing difficulties in 2020.
In the US, numerous laws have been passed to protect people with disabilities from discrimination in the polling place. Key federal legislation includes:
- Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965
- Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act (VAEHA) of 1984
- Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990
- National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993
- Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002
These laws have helped tremendously. In the November 2018 elections, 14.3 million citizens with disabilities reported voting. But there are 35 million voting-age Americans with disabilities, so clearly not all participated. Some opted out by choice, but a great many others did not get to vote because it was not accessible to them.
The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that 60% of polling places in its sample during the 2016 election had one or more potential impediments to disabled voters. The reasons for this are myriad, and a great many of them are simply that jurisdictions are not complying with laws already in place.
Smartmatic and other technology providers have been incorporating innovations that have helped move accessible technology ahead faster. These include things like:
- Headphones to provide audio instruction for the visually impaired.
- Braille labels on device controllers.
- Ports that allow users to connect personal assistive devices.
- Settings to help those with visual impairment, including changing screen contrast, text size, screen angle.
Unfortunately, the accessible technology that is available often does not get into the polling place. Typically, accessible technologies cost more, and many states are struggling to fund new equipment purchases. Cost, however, isn’t the only factor. Often, accessible technology in the polling place isn’t used because poll workers aren’t trained on its use. Or they don’t set it up because it’s a lower priority. Or the machines are placed in inaccessible areas.
According to Michelle Bishop, a voting rights advocate for the National Disability Rights Network, “We get reports of poll workers discouraging their use. They say, ‘I haven’t been well trained,’ ‘It’s intimidating to me,’ ‘We’ll set it to the side and get through Election Day.’”
Taking a Holistic View
There are, however, many imperatives beyond equipment that must be addressed to make elections truly accessible for people with disabilities.
- Polling facilities should be viewed as critical infrastructure, and thus provided the funding to make them fully ADA compliant.
- Poll workers must be properly educated on regulations and trained to assist with accessible machines.
- Existing legislation to protect the voting rights of people with disabilities must be enforced by the Department of Justice.
- Any new legislation under consideration must take into account the rights of the disabled.
We should equally share the commitment to enable voters with disabilities to engage in the Democratic process. It is a goal within reach that is good for democracy.