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People with Disabilities’ Voices Should be Heard in US Elections

Inaccessible Polls, Ballots May Disenfranchise Millions in Upcoming Elections

A woman departs the Beethoven Elementary School after participating in early voting in Chicago, October 15, 2020.  © 2020 AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

Approximately 38.3 million people with disabilities, nearly the equivalent of the entire population of California, are eligible to vote in the upcoming United States elections. This includes 5.4 million Black and 4.1 million Latinx voters with disabilities. Yet the obstacles they face in voting may mean that their voices will not be heard.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other laws require polling places for US federal elections to be accessible to all voters. That includes physical accessibility, accessibility in communications, and reasonable modifications to accommodate individual requirements. Polling stations are also required to have an accessible system for casting ballots that ensures a private and independent vote. But many polling sites don’t meet these standards. A report on polling stations after the 2016 elections found that nearly 60 percent had at least one accessibility barrier, an improvement over 73 percent in 2008, but still far from where the country should be 30 years since the ADA’s passage.  

The Covid-19 pandemic brings new difficulties. During spring primaries, election officials reduced the number of polling places, requiring people to travel further to reach them. Accessible public transportation remains limited. Long lines can impede the vote for those unable to wait outdoors or in line for long periods, and those who are at heightened risk for severe illness from Covid-19.

The expansion of mail-in and online voting has increased opportunities for many people with disabilities to vote. For example, Virginia allows people who are blind or with low vision to utilize electronic ballots compatible with screen reader assistive technology. But the ballot still needs to be printed and mailed, a challenge or impossibility for some. During Arizona’s spring primaries, we learned that Maricopa County election officials provided an electronic voting tablet to voters with disabilities or with risk factors for Covid-19. They then used an online portal to help people navigate through electronic voting.

Yet in states without electronic options, some voters may have to forgo their right to a private vote, or not vote at all if they can’t write by hand or sign a mail-in ballot, or can’t easily read a standard ballot due to a vision, intellectual, or other disability.

In an election with many voting concerns, states should invest in ensuring people with disabilities’ voices are heard and that their votes are counted.

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