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  • Michalina Kubicka

Barriers to Access: Voters With Disabilities

Updated: Oct 28, 2021

(Alexander F Yuan/AP)

Hey VFP fam! As always, welcome back to the blog. This week, we’re doing something a *little* different.


This is going to be the first in a series of posts about the barriers to ballot access faced by voters in the United States. We’ve long known that access to the ballot box isn’t equal in this country, but we think it’s about time that we take a look at how different communities are restricted from participating in our democracy, often in targeted and insidious ways.

Perhaps most importantly, as we learn about these barriers, we’re going to be providing you all with resources: real steps that you can take to right these wrongs in your own communities. So, without further adieu, let’s take a look at our first group: voters with disabilities.

"More than 38 million eligible voters have disabilities. That’s more than 16 percent of the electorate."

According to new projections from researchers at Rutgers University, more than 38 million eligible voters have disabilities. That’s more than 16 percent of the electorate.

Americans with disabilities have historically voted in much lower numbers than their nondisabled counterparts, largely because of the obstacles they face when trying to cast their ballots. Federal law requires polling places to be accessible, but deterrents (think: inaccessible entrances, malfunctioning voting machines and long lines) are everywhere. According to an October study by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, nearly two-thirds of polling places inspected on Election Day 2016 had at least one impediment to people with disabilities. And, as we know, new barriers to voting are being erected every day. So let’s look at a few new restrictions, and how they affect voters with disabilities in particular:

"Nearly two-thirds of polling places inspected on Election Day 2016 had at least one impediment to people with disabilities."

  • Mail Voting: As we saw in 2020, increased access to mail ballots made voting easier for all Americans-- full stop. But mail voting has always been critical to voters with disabilities: three-quarters of Americans with disabilities voted by mail or during an early voting period in 2020, compared to two-thirds of voters without disabilities. More than half of people with disabilities who voted by mail in 2020 and in-person in the past said they found voting easier last year. Unfortunately, laws to limit mail voting have already been introduced in 33 states in 2021.

  • Ballot Harvesting: Bills in Wisconsin and Arizona would limit who could return voters’ mail or absentee ballots on their behalf - a practice sometimes called ballot harvesting. For voters who face difficulties making it to the polls themselves, having a trusted friend, family member, or community organizer return their ballots for them is a critical way to ensure that their voices can be heard.

  • Signature Match: People with disabilities are disproportionately affected by signature matching rules, where the signature signed on a ballot is compared (most often by an untrained election volunteer) to one that a county has on file for a voter. Visual impairments, brain injuries, and other disabilities can prevent people from signing their name consistently, leading to their ballots being improperly disqualified. Strict signature match requirements have been introduced in a host of states, including Arizona, where a new law would refer mismatched mail ballot signatures to criminal investigation by prosecutors.

  • ID Requirements: Some new laws, like Georgia’s much-discussed SB 202, replaced a signature matching requirement with a requirement that voters submit a state ID number in order to obtain an absentee ballot. For disabled voters without a driver’s license, and with no way to easily get to a DMV to obtain an alternate ID, this requirement presents a whole new set of challenges.

Fired up? Us too. Here are a few things you can do about it:

  • Support Our Time, Our Vote, a nonpartisan effort by the National Center for Learning Disabilities, which provides resources to disabled voters and more information for their advocates.

  • Share the resources provided by the National Disability Rights Network with your community. The NDRN has member agencies in every state and territory dedicated to providing Americans with disabilities legally based advocacy services on issues ranging from education to housing to voting-- you never know who in your network could benefit from their services.

Voting is a fundamental right, and it’s up to every one of us to keep working to ensure that every American, regardless of ability, has access to it.

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

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