Voter Suppression Isn’t New for Disabled Folks

35 million eligible voters with disabilities could find their journey to the polls littered with obstacles.

[Photo: A man with a cane stands outside a polling place in Florida.]
As the demographic most affected by looming changes to health care, disabled people require a voice in who their elected leaders are to be. Drew Angerer / Getty

With the midterm elections rapidly approaching, the entire nation seems to be talking about voter suppression. While Black and brown people have been raising the alarm since the Voting Rights Act (and well before, if we’re honest), one population is still waiting to be taken seriously about their disenfranchisement: disabled people.

As the demographic most affected by looming changes to health care, disabled people require a voice in who their elected leaders are to be. But 35 million eligible voters with disabilities could find their journey to the polls littered with obstacles.

According to the Center for American Progress, a report from the U.S. Government Accountability office found that 60 percent of observed polling stations in the 2016 election had at least one impediment to accessibility for disabled voters despite Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements. Many voting locations lack features like accessible parking and entryways and have obstacles that impede movement for disabled people.

Not to be discounted is the prevalence of religious facilities as polling stations. As just one example, the Associated Press reported that in 2016, nine out of 60 polling stations in Frederick County, Maryland, were at a church. In addition to posing an obvious problem with the separation of church and state, religious organizations are exempt from the ADA. While the legislation was up for debate in the late 1980s, churches and other religious entities actually lobbied to be exempt from becoming required to be accessible to disabled people. One 2014 study found that 25 percent of respondents said inaccessible churches acted as a barrier between them and Christianity. Meanwhile, the Ruderman Foundation provides resources for inclusion for disabled Jewish congregants—noting that, in the greater Boston area, for instance, congregations “report some level of impediment to access for people with disabilities.” Mosques, too, sometimes present accessibility issues.

Another hurdle to the polls is the perception of disabled people as individuals incapable of making decisions about their futures. According to Pew, an estimated 1.5 million adults are under guardianship nationally, though state laws about voting and guardianship can vary. In California, for example, NPR reported in 2016 that more than 30,000 disabled people have lost their right to vote due to state guardianship laws in the last decade. Guardianships have little to do with whether someone is competent to make decisions such as whom to vote for; rather, they are for disabled people who need help managing their household, medical needs, and finances. While many disabled folks enter into guardianships with their consent, courts, family members, and social workers can claim a disabled individual requires guardianship at any time. Because of this, disabled people in California and other states with similar laws can find themselves before a judge fighting for the right to cast a ballot. In Los Angeles County, a legal expert at the Spectrum Institute found after surveying six months of court documents that 90 percent of the developmentally disabled placed under conservatorship had lost the right to vote.

While identifying the barriers to voting for disabled people is key, it likely will have little impact on changing their disenfranchisement. Politicians interested in suppressing votes have little incentive to ameliorate these conditions.

In battleground states, conservative politicians have used the inaccessibility of polling stations in Black and brown communities as an excuse to shut down those locations for voting rather than improve them or provide alternatives. In Georgia’s gubernatorial race, one majority-Black county made plans to shut down two-thirds of polling stations; the plan was later scrapped. This is the first gubernatorial race in the state’s history in which a Black woman, Stacey Abrams, is on the ballot.

On the left, liberals have failed to organize around increasing accessibility or including disabled people in local politics. Thus, voting venues remain inaccessible and can be used as chess pieces in a game for voting rights.

Some states have made strides in voter accessibility. Thirty-seven states allow early voting, and all states will provide absentee ballots for constituents who request them. In 20 states, however, an excuse for absentee ballots is required—and providing proof of that excuse can be logistically prohibitive for a population that already struggles to access society.

With the Affordable Care Act on the tip of every constituent’s tongue, a lack of access to the vote can prove deadly to disabled people: They will likely be the population affected immediately and most severely by federal changes to the law. This can have a cascading effect on everything in a disabled person’s life—from jobs to housing—pressing more into poverty. As of 2013, nearly a third of disabled people lived at or below the poverty line.

Never a community to wait on the wills of others for change, activists with disabilities have taken it upon themselves to educate one another on policy issues. At the start of the 2016 presidential race, Alice Wong, Gregg Beratan, and Andrew Pulrang teamed up to create #CripTheVote, a social media movement that gave voice to the interests of the disabled. National ADAPT, an organization that assembles members for local and national initiatives, is credited with halting the repeal of the ACA by camping out in Mitch McConnell’s office.

Still, advocates are in a precarious position. Battling inaccessibility in voting could lead to further isolation of other marginalized communities by those invested in suppression. Additionally, the fact that the current political climate is inundated by health-care rhetoric paints the disabled community as single-issue voters. While health care is critical, they are also concerned with legislation related to trans rights, marriage equality, job growth, the economy, and education—to name a few.

For those looking to be allies to the disabled community, the nondisabled should fight inaccessibility wherever it exists—and not just during election years. If voters should come across inaccessibility at the ballot, the U.S. Department of Justice has resources for quick fixes that can be enacted by poll workers; it is recommended, however, that problems be reported to the voting office for your state or county. Wherever possible, seek out the advice of nonpartisan voter advocacy groups like the Election Protection Hotline.

Ableism is one of the mechanisms by which politicians suppressing the marginalized find themselves with a two-for-one deal. It would be incredibly naïve to underestimate the power of the disabled vote. At 22 percent, adults with disabilities are the largest minority in the country. They intersect with every race, national origin, sexuality, gender and political persuasion—and the community is growing with membership open to all.

But maybe more people know that than previously thought. Perhaps that’s the reason why so many polling places are inaccessible after all: to undercut the power of our vote.