By Bryan Shapiro
In the United States, around 56 million, or 18%, of Americans are considered to be disabled. Of that number, 38.3 million are eligible to vote this year, or one-sixth of the entire electorate. The disabled population is also diverse, with differing needs and impediments to fully accessing society. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a vital piece of legislation that has operated since 1990 to give Americans with disabilities greater access and opportunity to our society. The ADA (and subsequent Amendments ADAAA) and its requirements for accommodation have ingrained itself into our society so much so that many people don’t even notice when ramps or other mechanisms are in common areas. As it is an election season, a question to be asked is if this population is being given a fair chance to fully participate in the voting process.
The ADA does not explicitly address the requirements for polling places to accommodate those with disabilities. However, Title II requires that the disabled are given the right to physical access, provided effective communication on the process, and reasonable modifications such as curbside voting. Where the ADA is vague, other federal regulations try to clarify further. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) requires election officials to allow voters who are blind or have other disabilities to have help from a person of the voters’ choice. Further regulations, such as the Voting Access for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984, require states to provide alternative means of voting for the disabled if there is no reasonable access. Finally, the Help America Vote Act of 2002 provides that at least one station shall be handicap accessible at all polling stations.
While each of these laws has helped increase access to the ballot, a study of the 2016 Presidential election by the Government Accountability Office found that “roughly two-thirds of the examined polling places had at least one potential barrier such as lack of accessible parking, poor paths to the building, steep ramps, or lack of a clear path to the voting area. Although most polling places had at least one accessible voting system, roughly one-third had a voting station that did not allow a private and independent vote.” This report came following the Department of Justice releasing a ADA checklist on ways to be ADA compliant. Clearly, we have a long way to go to protect the franchise of the disabled.
Despite the 2016 election access issues for the disabled in 2016, the 2020 campaign season brings in a fresh new problem, COVID-19. The Coronavirus has impacted millions and has caused nations worldwide to try to figure out how to administer elections safely. One of the biggest changes has been the reduction of in-person voting and an increase in mail-in voting.
The mail-in voting system does provide for certain issues the disabled face to be eased. For instance, those who are physically disabled or might otherwise have issues standing in longer lines might find voting at home to be a positive alternative. However, the mail-in system does not solve the problem for those with disabilities such as blindness, where access means someone verbally helping them to vote. To provide for the diverse needs of the disabled community, the in-person system also needs to be tightly monitored to ensure compliance with established procedures.
While we don’t yet know the participation rates for the disabled in the 2020 election, we do know that the disabled have faced historical disenfranchisement that won’t simply solve itself. Moving forward, hopefully, the 2020 election data will show where our system is still falling short and where we can focus our efforts to protect the disabled communities meaningful right to vote.