In the spirit of the election, I decided to post a paper I wrote for my Disability Law & Policy class. I’m most definitely not an expert, so please keep that in mind while reading. Enjoy!
Voting Accessibility & Policy
22 May 2019
Under the minority model of disability, advocacy for disability legislation is quite large. In America, voting is the way any citizen can make their voices heard politically. However, access to this vote is fairly limited, making it difficult for certain demographics to have their voices effectively heard. Certain legislation has been passed to assist in increasing the voting rates of disabled adults such as the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984, and the Help America Vote Act of 2002. Unfortunately however, the disparity between disabled voters and non-disabled voters is still quite large.
Disability community as a voting bloc
The disability community is considered one of, if not the largest marginalized group in America, with 20% of Americans having some sort of disability. Other than the medical model, the “minority model” or “civil rights model” is the most prevalent model of disability today. This model of disability involves seeing disabled people as a disenfranchised group. As the disability movement strengthens and builds upon itself, advocacy tends to focus on awareness in the hopes of gaining more legislation that protect the rights of people with disabilities – to change the attitudes of the people in charge. To be in a demographic comprising as one fifth of the population, it goes without saying that the community forms an extensive voting bloc.
There has been some important pieces of legislation that have made the attempt to make the voting process more accessible to citizens with disabilities. They are (Colker & Milani, 2005; US Department of Justice):
- The Voting Rights Act of 1965 – VRA was passed to remove the “secret-ballot” requirement for voters with disabilities. This way if somebody cannot complete the ballot themselves, somebody of their choice can assist them .
- Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984 – VAEHA requires that people with disabilities have access to accessible polling places for federal elections, declaring voting as a fundamental right. The Act also requires that states allow disabled people to vote by absentee ballot.
- Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 – ADA was a large comprehensive Act for people with disabilities. When it came to voting however, it requires that polling places be accessible. The big difference between the ADA and VAEHA is that the former is applicable to state elections and federal elections, while VAEHA affects only federal elections.
- National Voter Registration Act of 1993 – NVRA attempted to increase the voting registration rates of people with disabilities by requiring that all offices that provide state-funded public assistance also allow the disabled person to register for federal elections.
- Help America Vote Act of 2002 – HAVA requires that every polling place for federal elections have at least one accessible voting system for those with disabilities to vote.
HAVA was one of the more recent pieces of legislation to reform the voting process for people with disabilities. After the 2000 election, the statistics showed that 41% of adults with disabilities voted, while the statistic was 51% for the general population. Colker & Milani (2005) point out the issues with this disparity:
Estimates indicate that if individuals with disabilities had voted in 2000 with the same turnout as the rest of the adult population, Vice-President Gore would have won the popular vote by between 1 million and 2.5 million votes and, moreover, he would easily have won Florida and the electoral vote. Indeed, according to the American Association of People with Disabilities, 40.5 percent of Florida voters with disabilities voted in the 2000 presidential election, with an estimated 1.8 million disabled Floridians not voting.
The point remains that the disability community continue to form a large voting bloc that has the potential to change the outcome of major federal elections.
Important court cases
- Nelson v. Miller, 170 F.3d 641 (6th Cir. 1999) – this case was a class action lawsuit brought on behalf of all voters with a visual impairment. There was (and continues to be) worries amongst voters with visual impairments that they did/do not have the right to a secret ballot due to the only available accommodation in many polling locations is to have a poll worker assist the voter in filling out the ballot. It was ultimately decided that the lack of access to a secret ballot was not considered discrimination.
- People of New York ex rel. Spitzer v. County of Delaware, 82 F. Supp.2d 12 (N.D. N.Y. 2000) – this case came about when the Attorney General of New York sued the county of Delaware under ADA Title II for lack of accessibility in polling places.
Out of curiosity, I wrote a Twitter poll to see how many people in the disability community have experienced difficulties voting. With 193 votes in this poll, 45% of people said that they did have difficulties voting, with 55% saying that they have not had difficulties. I offered respondents the chance to share their experiences. A major trend that I noticed was the fact that people who responded that they did not have difficulty voting largely felt as though this was simply because they were able to vote by mail with absentee ballots. However, there are issues with even this method of voting. A respondent said, “My town does curbside voting, which means you can vote from a car. I have to have someone with w/ [sic] a car take me to the pollside. I don’t have a car, so it’s very inaccessible to me to either do absentee (can’t go to the post office) or in-person.”
It is important to note that any research done through Twitter should be taken as anecdotal evidence, and nothing more. With no control over any variables in the study (ensuring that only applicable people responded, demographic information, etc), the results from Twitter polls should not be considered representative of a larger population at all. However, hearing individual anecdotes of the difficulties with voting can begin to give you a larger view of the issues that those with disabilities have.
Implications for future
The internet has helped mobilize people with disabilities in ways that many people, including those within the community, never imagined. The immediacy and accessibility of being able to access the internet, especially with assistive technology such as screen readers, has allowed people with disabilities to connect and share experiences and realize that they are not alone. This has helped create social movements within the community, such as the hashtag #CripTheVote started by activists Alice Wong, Gregg Baratan, and Andrew Pulrang. In Wong’s voice (2016), #CripTheVote is a “nonpartisan campaign to engage both voters with disabilities and politicians about disability issues in the United States” (HuffPost, 2016). Gregg Baratan continues saying that the movement was inspired by the 2016 US election, and about how “no one was mentioning us, even in relation to issues that had a major impact on our lives.”
The potential of the world wide web for people with disabilities needs to be utilized. Disabled activists are starting to use it as a tool for their activism, but it is time for disability legislation to look at the internet as a tool as well. For instance, having the opportunity to cast votes for national or even state elections online would more than likely increase the voting rates of people with disabilities. Of course, casting votes online brings on many more security concerns and whether or not this can be done while still ensuring a secret ballot. At the end of the day, however, there needs to be something tangible done to ensure that voters with disabilities are given access to voting, one of the principal duties of an American citizen.
Various legislation has been passed to help encourage the physical accessibility of polling locations for elections. However, this has done very little in terms of actually increasing the rate of voting for disabled voters. Many voters with disabilities continue to have difficulties with accessing their polling locations. Even when proper accommodations are provided, such as being provided the assistance of a poll worker, oftentimes the right to a secret ballot is violated. New technology has been made available since the last voting legislation passed for people with disabilities in 2002. Disabled people now have many avenues for mobilization through the internet, and this has started a new movement of political activism called #CripTheVote. Other uses of the internet to increase voting accessibility should also be explored.
Colker, R., & Milani, A. (2006). Everyday law for individuals with disabilities. Boulder:
Ferguson, A. (2016, May 03). The #CripTheVote Movement Is Bringing Disability Rights
To The 2016 Election. Retrieved May 22, 2019, from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/cripthevote-movement-2016-election_n_57279637e4b0f309baf177bd
Help America Vote Act. (n.d.). Retrieved May 22, 2019, from
Nelson v. Miller, 170 F.3d 641 (6th Cir. 1999)
People of New York ex rel. Spitzer v. County of Delaware, 82 F. Supp.2d 12 (N.D. N.Y.
Statistics & Data. (n.d.). Retrieved May 22, 2019, from
US Department of Justice. (2014, October 10). The Americans with Disabilities Act and
Other Federal Laws Protecting the Rights of Voters with Disabilities. Retrieved
May 22, 2019, from https://www.ada.gov/ada_voting/ada_voting_ta.htm