By Rachel Wright and Casandra Hockenberry
Nearly two million people with disabilities — about 11% of voters with a disability — encountered challenges voting in 2020.
People with disabilities can face a variety of barriers when trying to cast their ballot. For example, an individual with a print disability (the inability to understand printed information) may be unable to mark and return a paper absentee ballot. Additional barriers can include physically inaccessible polling places, lack of access to a functioning ballot marking device with assistive technologies and limited access to timely election information.
While barriers to voting persist for people with disabilities, turnout among this group has increased in recent years. From 2016 to 2020, the voter turnout gap between people with disabilities and people without disabilities decreased slightly from 6.3 percentage points to 5.7 percentage points. Throughout the U.S., state and local leaders have implemented innovative policies and practices to reduce gaps in turnout and expand voting access for people with disabilities.
Making Polling Places Physically Accessible for Voters with Disabilities
Approximately 38 million American voters are living with a disability. A person’s disability may impact hearing or vision, mobility, cognition and/or their ability to live independently or care for oneself. People with disabilities still retain the right to fully participate in all aspects of community life, including the electoral process.
The Americans with Disabilities Act requires all polling places to be accessible to voters with disabilities, yet many polling places and vote centers remain physically inaccessible. Common issues include inaccessible parking, sidewalks and walkways in disrepair, steps and narrow doors to entrances and protruding objects in hallways.
States are working to correct these issues. Many have come up with programs and resources to make vote centers and the voting experience more accessible for all citizens.
For example, the Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk for Los Angeles County, California, has enhanced the physical accessibility of polling places through the Flex Vote Center Program. This program was established in 2020 with the implementation of the county’s new publicly owned voting system, Voting Solutions for All People.
Through the Flex Vote Center Program, the county partnered with local organizations providing supports and services to people with disabilities such as the Disabled Resource Center. Vote centers were set up at these community organizations, eliminating the need for people
with disabilities to use traditional vote centers or polling places. The program also offered curbside voting, allowing election staff to maintain social distancing while providing a secure, comfortable experience for voters with disabilities.
In Iowa, the secretary of state’s office partnered with Disability Rights Iowa in 2020 to produce and distribute an Accessibility Guide Booklet to election officials throughout the state. These booklets include information on accessible voting equipment, spacing and signage to ensure polling places are accessible for Iowans with disabilities.
Expanding Access to Timely Election Information in an Accessible Format
Access to timely election information is essential to voting. According to James Dickson, co-chair of the Voting Rights Committee at the National Council on Independent Living, “…most of the information that is available to (voters without disabilities) through the election office on the internet is not accessible to many of us.”
States such as Florida have tried to enhance the accessibility of public-facing election information for people with disabilities. Beginning with the 2016 presidential election, the Martin County Elections Center launched the Count Me in Too campaign. This campaign generated a series of educational videos aimed at helping individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing.
Count Me in Too campaign videos educate voters on how to register to vote and cast their ballot. This information is presented in multiple formats: American Sign Language, audio voice-over and closed-captioning text. During the 2016 election, registration and turnout increased among voters with disabilities by 8% in Martin County.
Also in 2016, the Washington secretary of state’s office launched MyVote (now known as VoteWA), an accessible and easy to use voter information portal. The system was designed around accessibility best practices such as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 AA standards, National Federation of the Blind Mobile Voting Working Group Electronic Ballot Delivery Guidelines and Center for Civic Design guidelines.
Accessible Absentee Ballots for Voters with Disabilities
If voters with a disability are unable to arrive at a polling place on Election Day, they must often mark and return a mailed paper ballot in advance. For voters with print disabilities, marking a paper ballot may require help from a roommate, friend or family member, thereby compromising their right to vote privately and independently.
To combat this, the West Virginia legislature enacted Senate Bill 94 (2020). This bill helps voters with physical disabilities who are unable to mark a paper ballot without assistance. Senate Bill 94 lets these voters receive, mark and return an absentee ballot by mail or electronically through a safe, accessible and secure portal. As a result, 271 voters with a qualifying disability cast their ballot using the new system during the 2020 general election.
Election officials in California recently implemented a remote accessible vote-by-mail system for voters with disabilities. The system allows voters with disabilities to download their ballot and mark their selections using their own compatible technology. This system allows voters to maintain privacy and independence while marking their ballot despite the presence of a disability. As of 2022, voters are still required to print their selections and mail or drop off their ballot to their local election official.
State and local officials continue to find innovative ways to ensure everyone can participate fully in the American election process.
Expanding Access for Military and Overseas Voters
Since 2013, The Council of State Governments Overseas Voting Initiative has supported the U.S. Department of Defense Federal Voting Assistance Program. The program is designed to help reduce the barriers to voting faced by military and overseas citizens — a federally protected class of voters. A series of laws protect their right to vote: the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act and the Help Americans Vote Act.
These laws require that in the administration of federal elections, officials mail ballots to military and overseas voters at least 45 days prior to the election, provide some method for voters to track their ballot through the process and provide some methodology for military and overseas citizen voters to receive their blank ballot electronically.
According to the Federal Voting Assistance Program, nearly three million U.S. citizens live abroad and are eligible to vote in U.S. elections.