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Disenfranchisement by Default: Voting While Disabled

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:

Voting while disabled. Yes, we vote!

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!


  1. Megpie71 wrote:

    This is something I’m reasonably proud of Australia for working a lot harder at than most countries. At least part of the reason we’re working harder at accessibility issues is because we do have this legal requirement for all eligible voters to turn out and receive their ballot papers[1]. So there’s a requirement that as many polling places as possible be accessible to as many people as possible.

    There’s also options to vote early, to cast a postal vote, and for those with lowered visual acuity, there’s the option to cast a vote via phone (through call centres).

    There’s a list of the different ways to vote in Australian federal elections here:

    It’s one of the things I feel most strongly about my country: the requirement that everyone who is registered to vote actually turn out and do so is the strongest possible incentive toward actually ensuring that everyone who is registered to vote is able to vote. It’s part of the great Australian “fair go” – if we’re going to require people to do something, then we have to make whatever it is we’re requiring the easier thing to do than not doing it. Particularly if we’re going to fine people for not participating.

    I know some people see the requirement to turn out and receive ballot papers to be “undemocratic” – but I’d argue it’s actually the reverse. What’s more democratic, in the long run? Requiring the reluctant to do their duty as a citizen and participate in a political process which will affect them anyway, or using the reluctance of a few as an excuse to permit the disenfranchisement many who do wish to participate in the political process?

    [1] We don’t have a requirement to vote. It’s a secret ballot, so what you do with your ballot paper once you’ve received it is your business – you just have to turn up, get your name marked off the electoral roll, and get handed the papers. After that, you may or may not register a valid vote (heck, I think it’s possibly legally allowable to eat the silly things, although given most polling places tend to have a perfectly good sausage sizzle happening nearby I’ve no idea why you’d want to).

    Wednesday, January 11, 2012 at 6:32 am | Permalink
  2. alumiere wrote:

    When I moved into a new apartment in LA I went to vote and found the polling place up a long set of stairs, without a ramp, followed by more steps to get into the actual polling room.

    I asked about access after having my BF carry me up the long flight (I use a cane, and was luckily dressed in something I can get a piggyback in) and was told that there is an elevator inside the school, but I’d have to go around the building and through the school. And someone would have to meet me as that school was closed. And that there was no ramp to the voting room, but if I needed assistance someone would help me or they’d bring out a portable machine. I was rather appalled and said so. Now I use absentee ballot as does BF; too much hassle.

    Wednesday, January 11, 2012 at 8:01 am | Permalink
  3. Emily wrote:

    As a more or less non-disabled person who is interested in being a helpful ally on this issue, it would be great to have a sort of checklist of some commonly-overlooked accessibility issues, like the one you mentioned about needing a quiet place to vote. I wouldn’t have thought of that one if you hadn’t written it.

    I will most likely be taking the day off work on Election Day to do some kind of volunteer work around accessibility. I had considered driving people to their polling places, but I’m now interested in going to polling locations early in the day to check for accessibility and alert the staff, who could hopefully remedy the problem immediately before too many people are impacted. A list of things to look for would be great.

    Wednesday, January 11, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Permalink
  4. GraniteStater wrote:

    I used to be a reporter in New Hampshire, and there’s actually a worse voter accessibility problem happening at the local level.

    Many smaller New Hampshire towns still have the “Town Meeting” format, a holdover from colonial America. Basically, you sit down in a school gymnasium in March with everyone else in town able to come, and debate the issues at hand that affect the town and school budget. Problem is, these meetings often have 40-50 questions on their list, and many require a lot of debate. The most contentious issues can be debated on for 1-2 hours each. I’ve been to meetings that have started at 7 p.m., run to 1 a.m., and have had to be continued on the following week night. Even if there’s an issue very dear to your heart, you’ve got to stay through the whole thing, since the vote can be recalled at any time before meeting’s end and voted upon again.

    This raises a lot of accessibility issues – people who have to work at night have no vote. People with disabilities have to not only worry about getting there, but have to wonder if they’ll have a ride back at 1 or 2 a.m., or risk losing their vote. There are also people whose health prevents them from being able to stay in a gymnasium and away from medical equipment for more than a few hours. I’ve rarely seen single parents at meetings – good luck finding a babysitter who can stay up past 1 a.m. on a school night. There’s a lot of NH voter disenfranchisement going on because a lot of town elders are opposed to voting these things on a ballot and letting more than a few core people in on the voting process.

    Sorry to vent on this, but it’s an issue that I used to write a lot of editorials about and was always condescended to by the older members of town who benefited from the Town Meeting voting format. For the first two years I lived there, I couldn’t vote because I was working those nights covering other Town Meetings!

    Wednesday, January 11, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Permalink
  5. de Pizan wrote:

    What I like about Oregon is that all voting is done by mail. Which is so much easier for someone like myself with chronic illnesses who can’t stand for long periods or sometimes can’t leave the house. They also started a new pilot program in 5 counties this year with voting by I-pad to make voting easier for those with disabilities or even need translation.

    Wednesday, January 11, 2012 at 9:48 pm | Permalink
  6. PatientC wrote:

    Thanks so much for writing this! The last election I would have been disenfranchised had I not been a stubborn ass. The parking was far from the door, the pavement was in terrible shape, the curb cut angle was set to tip-you-backwards, and there were no low-set booths! **breath** But by the time I got through all that I was going to be damned before I did not cast a ballot. So I sat at the check in table in my wheelchair and filled out my ballot in front of staff, other voters, and who ever else wanted to see.

    This kind of experience is terribly isolating, thank you for bringing it out into plain site.

    Thursday, January 12, 2012 at 12:38 am | Permalink
  7. gia wrote:

    I’m not quite sure why an absentee ballot doesn’t address most of these problems excepting those requiring an aide is deciphering the ballot or procedure. Every institution ideally ought to be physically accessible to all – but for instance, requiring a quiet space to vote, or any number of other inducing factors can’t feasibly be accounted for at all polling stations at all times, especially because most of them are temporary spaces.

    Thursday, January 12, 2012 at 8:25 am | Permalink
  8. lauredhel wrote:

    Gia: I’m happy to address the issue of absentee ballots. For me, an absentee ballot might make voting ‘accessible’, but it doesn’t give me the same access that other members of the community have. “Separate but not equal” is not equal – especially since all that’s needed for access is a wide ramped door and seated voting available. I like to vote as part of my community, which is a right available to all other Australians. Going down to the local booth, voting amongst my neighbours, and enjoying the community bake sale or sausage sizzle at the booth is what I love about election day, and I don’t think that should be arbitrarily denied me because of my disability.

    Temporary spaces – yes, they are temporary spaces. Here, they are most commonly in primary school libraries. I think it is a disgusting, unconscionable facet of our communities that most of our primary school libraries are inaccessible – to students who use wheelchairs or scooters, to parents and guardians who use wheelchairs or scooters, to teachers and volunteers who use wheelchairs and scooters. Improved booth accessibility would be a delightful side effect of a comprehensive school accessibility programme.

    I gather in some places, churches are often used, or other community centres. Why are these places not already accessible? How is that acceptable?

    Friday, January 13, 2012 at 1:39 am | Permalink
  9. lauredhel wrote:

    (above: “especially since all that’s needed for access” means “for access for me”, obv.)

    Friday, January 13, 2012 at 1:40 am | Permalink
  10. Norah wrote:

    When we vote, the room always gets set up in the nursing home down the street. And… it’s not accessible. I would laugh, but really…. A building with a large number of people using wheelchairs, scooters, white canes, hearing aides, etc, and the voting there is still not accessible for any kind of disabled person, including wheelchair users.

    (To clarify, the buolding is mostly accessible from what I can tell, but the room where the voting is in has a narrow door and the booths aren’t in any way accessible either. There isn’t a lot of space to wait in line and no real opportunity to sit down, and it’s noisy, and the lights are really overwhelming. The voting process is also not easy, not explained clearly, and I always feel rushed. No clear directions put up in places where I can see them all the time.)

    Friday, January 13, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Permalink
  11. Gillian wrote:

    I had the same question about absentee ballots. Thank you Lauredhel for the answer!

    Sunday, January 15, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Permalink