As many as 3.2 million Americans may have been “sidelined” from participating in this year’s presidential election day, despite 20 years of fighting for laws to boost access to the polls. Who are these people who may be denied the ability to access their polling location and vote? They are the nation’s citizens with disabilities.
The Americans with Disabilities Act and the Help America Vote Act require that polling places have accessible voting systems, and that they ensure equal access and participation for people with physical and visual disabilities, yet voter turnout for people with disabilities is still 11% lower than non-disabled voter turn-out. Some critics of the current election day system think that number may be enough to change the results of a close election. Part of the problem is a lack of motivation to vote, but part is also due to a lack of accessible polling places.
New York City made headline news recently, when a Federal Court judge listened to testimony about how to make polling sites in New York City more accessible for people who use wheelchairs and have vision impairments. The lawsuit came on the heels of a U.S. District Court judge’s ruling from early August that conceded that there were pervasive barriers at the voting sites for people with disabilities.
That lawsuit was first filed two years ago, claiming that the Board of Elections has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The case presented a laundry list of challenges city residents with disabilities faced at polling places, including wheelchair ramps too narrow or steep, missing handicapped entrance signs, and voting booths too close to the wall for wheelchair access. While the ruling on the case was a victory for disabled voters, other areas of the country still face a litany of problems.
“The truth is that voting is a really symbolic act. And to be denied the right to vote in person at your polling place is to have your voice silenced, to be excluded from your community and from having a voice in your country,” explained Julia Pinover, one of the attorneys in the NYC case.
New York is not alone in its “open to interpretation” form of disability discrimination. In 39 of the nation’s states, there are laws that disqualify voters deemed “mentally incompetent” by a court from having the right to vote.
For example, in Virginia, election officials refused to provide absentee ballots for people in state psychiatric facilities because they read state law to allow ballots only for people with physical disabilities. And in Philadelphia during the 2008 election, nursing home residents were denied the right to vote based on the nursing home’s assessment of the capacity to vote, despite the fact there are no Pennsylvania laws that require voters to be deemed competent in order to vote.
Health and Human Rights Advocacy Director Rebecca Schleifer at Human Rights Watch says, “According to a 2009 US Government Accountability Office study, more than two-thirds of polling places are not fully accessible; nearly 25 percent did not have equal access to a secret and independent ballot and voting in a polling place, considered the ‘hallmarks of an effective and informed right to vote,’ as voting-rights expert Michael Waterstone has noted.”
What was your experience in this year’s election? Were your polling places accessible? Did you or a loved one face any disability discrimination that impeded your right to vote?