People are heading to the polls in New Hampshire today, kicking off the official primary cycle in the United States. This year, a lot of eyes are on tactics used to prevent people from voting, particularly targeting low-income communities of colour and nonwhite people. There’s a laundry list of voter suppression tools that are getting significant coverage in the news, but one in particular is receiving almost no media coverage:
The exact number of inaccessible polling places in the United States isn’t known, although this undated article puts the number at around 20,000, in direct violation of multiple laws. Various clauses which enforce accessibility in polling places to some degree can be found in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Voting Accessibility for Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984, the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, and the Help America Vote Act of 2002. That’s a whole lot of legislation. 22 years after passage of the ADA, we’re still struggling to make polling places accessible, let alone address full access and inclusion in society for people with disabilities.
Accessibility is a process and a continuum, not an endpoint; many checklists of polling place accessibility focus on things like ramps, lowered voting booths, stalls with audio voting systems for people with visual impairments so they can vote privately, an accessible parking space near the polling place, and other strategies to accommodate most people with physical disabilities. None of these things would actually help me vote, although I still firmly believe they should be available at every polling place.
I need a quiet place to vote. This is not provided at polling places. Other people may need other accessibility modifications, and most Secretaries of State freely admit that their goal is to make most polling places accessible to most people with disabilities. This is not everyone, and considerable leeway is permitted with decisions about accessibility needs. They are required to send notifications if an assigned polling place is not accessible, but those notifications rely on a narrow definition of ‘accessibility’ and also on reports from poll workers and inspectors who may not catch accessibility problems.
If a voter doesn’t ask to be reassigned to an accessible polling place or ask for an absentee ballot, that voter may arrive on voting day only to find out that it is not actually possible to vote. Or a voter may not be able to go to a reassigned voting location; maybe paratransit is too busy on election day. Maybe there’s no bus route. Maybe all the accessible buses are ‘broken.’ Maybe no cab will pick up a wheelchair user to head to the polls, and ridesharing organizations aren’t prepared to accommodate a disabled voter who needs a ride to cast a ballot.
At the polls themselves, disabled voters encounter disenfranchisement and privacy violations, and I hear about it with every election. Blind voters told no ballots are available for them but a polling place worker will mark their ballots for them. Wheelchair users who are forced to vote in the middle of a crowd of people because there’s no lowered polling station for them to use. Voters with intellectual disabilities told they can’t have an aide help them fill out the ballot.
These things are not just violations of the law; they are also acts of voter suppression. The disabled population of the United States is extremely large, and many people with disabilities want to be politically active and engaged. We want to vote, we want to participate in the political process, we want to submit comment on public events. We are often turned away from our polling places, put in a position where we need to justify our presence at the polls, or told we can’t vote unless we are willing to do so in public, a profound violation of the premise that ballots should remain secret.
Systemic voter suppression in the United States targets a number of populations and it is usually tangled up with multiple -isms. In this case, ableism plays a significant role in disabled voter suppression. There’s a belief that we don’t vote or shouldn’t be allowed to; there are some people who believe that voting rights shouldn’t be extended to people with mental illnesses, intellectual disabilities, cognitive disabilities, or developmental disabilities. There is an attitude that we ‘contribute nothing to society’ and thus our voices don’t count at the polls and we shouldn’t play a role in electing the officials who shape the policy that has a profound impact on our lives. We are treated as ‘drains on the system’ because some of us rely on government benefits to survive, and on those grounds, we are told that we should not be ‘allowed’ to vote. As though voting is a privilege, and not a right.
People with disabilities are also more likely to be poor, caught in the whiplash of voter suppression tactics aimed at people in poverty, like voter identification requirements and restrictions on early voting. The disabled community includes nonwhite people and people of colour, both of whom are targeted by racist voting legislation, as well as prisoners and ex-convicts, disenfranchised by law in many states and trapped in a highly racist ‘justice system’ in the process. This is a case where the intersection of voter suppression activities can become truly dizzying.
There are a number of measures people can take to protect voting rights for the disabled community, as well as other communities commonly impacted by civil rights violations at the polls.
If you are a poll worker. Check to see if your polling place is accessible. If you don’t know if it’s accessible, contact a local disability rights group for advice and assistance. Consider asking if someone is available to speak during the poll worker orientation on disability topics, accessibility, and the law, to make sure everyone is on the same page. If there are accessibility problems, bring them to the attention of the government agency that handles voting in your area. Ask them to consider moving the polling place to an accessible location, and make sure notices are sent out to alert voters to the problem.
If you are a voter. Be watchful at the polls (without violating voter privacy!). Watch for signs of fishy behaviour and don’t be afraid to report them to the Department of Justice as well as organisations like Election Protection. Organisations like Disability Rights Texas also maintain voter hotlines and there may be one in your area as well. What’s fishy behaviour? Seeing voters turned away, poll workers not allowing voters to use aides to help them vote, lack of disabled voting equipment, clear access problems like lack of ramps and parking, service animals turned away, people forced to vote in public because there is no accessible private space. Just for example. Civil rights violations at the polls are sometimes subtle, so be alert.
If someone appears to be having a hard time, approach discreetly and ask if the person needs assistance. If the person says “no,” accept that answer.
Write letters to the editor pointing out accessibility concerns at the polls in advance of primaries and the general election. Write followups reporting on problems at the polls after the election. If you see reports of civil rights violations, signal boost them to make sure they don’t fall out of the public eye, whether it’s a person of colour turned away on a spurious ID mismatch or a disabled voter kept out of the polling place by a flight of stairs.
Don’t let disenfranchisement by default happen on your watch!