Ensuring voting access for people with disabilities

Despite high turnout among people with disabilities in the last presidential election, systemic barriers to accessibility still exist. Efforts are now underway in several states in the South to examine voting policies that make it harder for disabled people to cast a ballot. (Photo by Lorie Shaull via Flickr.)  

In the 2020 elections, turnout among voters with disabilities reached unprecedented numbers. According to the Program for Disability Research at Rutgers University in New Jersey, approximately 62% of voters with a disability participated in the November 2020 election, compared to just about 56% in the 2016 presidential election. This was largely due to states adopting policies that made it easier to cast a ballot during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But in many places, voters with disabilities still face major obstacles to casting a ballot. According to a 2021 report from the Center for American Progress titled "Enhancing Accessibility in U.S. Elections," 1 in every 9 disabled voters faced some sort of barrier to accessing the ballot box in the 2020 elections. CAP also found that people with disabilities were nearly 7 percentage points less likely than non-disabled people to participate in that year's elections, even after adjusting for age. Barriers to voting faced by people with disabilities include overly complicated mail-in voting rules, physically inaccessible in-person voting and registration sites, and election materials that can be difficult to comprehend.

While 26% of adults in the U.S. have some type of disability, the percentage of people living with disabilities is highest in the South, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in 1.2 million more disabled people nationwide by the end of 2021, according to other CAP research.

"Policymakers must work closely with voters and advocates representing varied disabilities and interests to determine all the ways that existing election systems are inaccessible," Mia Ives-Rublee, director of CAP's Disability Justice Initiative and co-author of the report, said at the time of the accessibility report's release. "There must be a sense of urgency to fix these problems before the next major election."

Voting rights advocates point out that the same vote-suppressing tactics that many Republican-controlled Southern state legislatures have implemented to undermine turnout in communities of color have also impeded voting by people with disabilities. Last year alone, for instance, 19 states enacted 34 laws to make voting harder, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Many of these laws specifically targeted mail-in voting — which data shows was the most common method of casting a ballot among disabled voters during the 2020 election. Voter ID laws, early-voting restrictions, polling place closures, and limits on curbside voting and ballot drop boxes also disproportionately impact voters with disabilities.

Efforts including lawsuits and an investigative task force are now underway in states across the South to expand access to the ballot for voters with disabilities:

  • Last month in North Carolina, a federal judge blocked state laws that imposed limits on who voters with disabilities could ask to help them request, complete, and return absentee ballots. The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by Disability Rights North Carolina, which argued that state law barring people living in clinics, hospitals, and nursing homes from relying on persons employed by those facilities for help with any of the steps required to vote absentee conflicts with the federal Voting Rights Act, which says that "[a]ny voter who requires assistance to vote by reason of blindness, disability, or inability to read or write may be given assistance by a person of the voter's choice, other than the voter's employer or agent of that employer or officer or agent of the voter's union." U.S. District Court Judge Terrence Boyle ruled for the plaintiffs, so now someone with a disability who needs help to vote by mail can receive assistance from anyone they choose — including a nursing home caregiver. "Voting is a fundamental right in this country," Disability Rights North Carolina CEO Virginia Knowlton Marcus said in a statement, "and these barriers not only violated federal law, they effectively denied the dignity, autonomy and humanity of disabled people by preventing their full participation in voting."

  • And in Texas last month, a federal judge struck down portions of Senate Bill 1, a restrictive new voting law the Republican-controlled legislature passed after the 2020 election that among other things limited the ability of disabled voters to get help casting a ballot. Last September the law firm of Jenner & Block LLP joined a coalition of advocacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Texas, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Disability Rights Texas, and the Texas Civil Rights Project to file a lawsuit on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Texas, the Texas Organizing Project, Workers Defense Action Fund, Register, Educate, Vote, & Use Your Power - Texas (REV UP Texas), and OCA of Greater Houston. The plaintiffs argued that SB1's voter assistance provisions directly violate a 2018 injunction that said similar limitations in Texas' election code introduced at the time violated the federal Voting Rights Act. The ruling from Judge Robert Pitman means Texas can no longer restrict voter assistance to only reading and marking ballots. "Voters with disabilities in Texas are now no longer limited by a restrictive law in what assistance they can receive to ensure they are able to vote," said Lia Sifuentes Davis, senior litigation attorney at Disability Rights Texas. However, she notes that other provisions of SB 1 that hurt voters with disabilities, including those that limit voting by mail, remain in force for now.

  • Earlier this year in Louisiana, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a bipartisan measure to establish a task force examining the state of voting for people with disabilities. Sponsored by Rep. Matthew Willard, a New Orleans Democrat, House Concurrent Resolution 14 creates a 13-member task force charged with identifying barriers to casting a ballot for people with disabilities and reporting back to the legislature by Feb. 1, 2023. "Disabled people already encounter so many impediments during their everyday lives, but there should be no barriers when it comes to their constitutionally protected right to cast their votes," said Rep. Willard. At least seven of the task force seats are reserved specifically for people with disabilities. However, they won't be able to consider all potential barriers to voting: The original version of the bill had a provision to include curbside voting as a topic for study, but it was met with heavy opposition from GOP lawmakers in the state House and was removed from the final version.