Barriers to Access: Older Voters
Hi, y’all! We hope you all had a happy, safe, and healthy holiday weekend. We’re excited to get back into our series on barriers to voting access (don’t forget to check out part one: barriers faced by disabled voters, and part two: barriers faced by Native voters), this week exploring some of the barriers faced by older Americans looking to vote. Voting access for older Americans is crucial for many reasons, not the least of which is size: the country’s nearly 55 million Americans aged 65 and older make up about 16.5% of the population.
New laws designed to restrict access to the ballot box are making voting more difficult for all of us, but they leave older Americans with a unique set of challenges. Many older Americans are restricted by limited access to transportation, strict voter ID laws, and inaccessible polling places. Easy solutions to these challenges, like voting by mail, are being rolled back at a breakneck pace, and new, restrictive voting laws are compounding existing barriers.
Vote by Mail
In 2020, historic numbers of Americans participated in the electoral process, 46% of whom took advantage of expanded voting options like vote by mail. Vote by mail provided a safe, convenient, and secure way to access the ballot box-- especially for those Americans who are homebound or have issues with mobility.
Now, legislators in 33 states are seeking to make voting by mail harder: nearly half of the restrictive bills introduced in 2021 seek to limit mail voting. States like Florida, Georgia, and Arizona have already passed laws restricting access to vote by mail (including through strict voter ID requirements, which we’ll discuss further below), while nearly two dozen states continue to require an excuse to vote by mail (age is only a valid excuse in six of these). Limiting access to vote by mail directly impacts the ability of older Americans, especially the estimated 2-4 million who are homebound, to cast ballots.
As of April 2021, 71 bills have been introduced in state legislatures to restrict voting access through strict voter ID requirements. We’ve covered the devastating impact of voter ID laws in past posts, and for older Americans, the story is no different.
A 2012 study found that one in five Americans over the age of 65 (about 8 million) didn’t have a current, government-issued photo ID. Strict voter ID laws, like the ones being implemented in state legislatures across the country today, usually don’t allow expired IDs to be used for voting. For older Americans who no longer drive, the process of and costs associated with renewing a driver’s license can be enough of a deterrent to keep them away from the ballot box.
Getting a photo ID in the first place can be a significant burden for older Americans: producing necessary documents, like a birth certificate or marriage certificate is a particular challenge when those documents are several decades old or reflect former names. On top of that, traveling to the proper government offices can be a challenge of its own, as we’ll explore deeper in a later section.
A 2017 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that only 17% of polling sites reviewed were fully accessible for disabled and older Americans. Accessibility issues ranged from lack of accessible parking, obstacles between the parking space and entrance, and lack of an accessible entrance to the building. Even a door entrance with a threshold that exceeds half an inch could block some disabled and older Americans from entering.
For millions of older Americans, transportation is a daily challenge. According to the National Association of Agencies on Aging (AAA), 600,000 older Americans stop driving every year. A study of more than 3.5 million non-driving people over 65 found that more than half reported they stay at home on any given day because they do not have access to transportation. This problem is worse for older Americans in rural communities, who are forced to rely on friends, neighbors, or caregivers for transportation. But it’s not much better in cities: in metropolitan areas, an estimated 54% of older adults had “poor” access to transit, according to a report by Transportation for America.
A report prepared by the Senate Committee on Aging explored this very topic and produced a series of actionable recommendations, including a bill designed to address many of the concerns we raised today. The Accessible Voting Act would:
Establish the Office of Accessibility within the Election Assistance Commission to support and oversee state efforts to expand voter accessibility and serve as a resource for advocates and voters,
Establish a new state grant program for the Office of Accessibility to administer for the improvement of accessibility when registering to vote, voting by absentee ballot and casting a ballot in person,
Expand the number of options to cast a ballot in federal elections to ensure older voters and voters with disabilities can utilize the voting option most accessible for them, and
Re-authorize grants to states, through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to improve voting accessibility for older Americans and people with disabilities.
If you’d like to express your support for the Accessible Voting Act, or tell your representatives in Congress that voting accessibility is an issue that’s important to you, call (202) 224-3121 to be connected to your Senators and Member of Congress. Remember, they work for you: your voice matters.
Thanks for reading, y’all! Talk soon.
“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” – James Baldwin