Combine a high-stakes presidential election with a global pandemic and it’s unsurprising that there has been a massive increase in early voter turnout compared with past years. But with the surge in early voting and absentee ballots comes questions of accessibility. What are the options for people with disabilities?
Laws on accessible voting
Title II of the ADA requires state and local governments (considered “public entities”) to ensure that people with disabilities have a full and equal opportunity to vote. Twelve years after the ADA became law, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which mandated that “jurisdictions responsible for conducting federal elections to provide at least one accessible voting system for persons with disabilities at each polling place in federal elections. The accessible voting system must provide the same opportunity for access and participation, including privacy and independence, that other voters receive.”
Given that individuals with disabilities are generally a group at higher risk for COVID-19 complications, it’s essential to provide them with accommodations and ensure they are aware of their options for voting. But even with federal laws safeguarding voting rights, individual state laws may affect eligible residents’ ability to do so easily. Across the nation, voting accessibility varies greatly.
Absentee ballot pains
Though Iowa gets kudos for ranking in the top 10 easiest states to vote in, Iowa Council of the United Blind President Carrie Chapman pointed out that blind Iowans need a sighted person to help them fill out an absentee ballot. For individuals who may not have a trusted friend or relative to help them do this, finding such a person (and trusting them to come into their home during a pandemic) can be quite challenging.
In Mississippi, residents looking to use an absentee ballot to cast their vote must get a notary to sign their ballot envelope. For someone with a disability, this can pose a major obstacle. Not only do they need to be able to travel to a notary, but this option is essentially impossible if they are trying to avoid social contact.
How states are helping
In some areas of the country, both local news stations, disability advocacy groups, and individuals have taken it upon themselves to call for and provide guidance on accessible voting. For example, CBS8 in San Diego offered local options and a man in Minnesota created a Facebook page. Some other ways states are removing barriers to voting:
- Along with its mail-in ballot system, Oregon is now allowing election workers to visit care homes to assist residents with filling out ballots
- Pennsylvania has several options for voting including on-site voting assistance from a polling worker, the ability to bring someone to assist you, and accessible remote ballot marking (also available in Ohio) for people using screen readers other assistive technology
- In North Carolina you don’t even have to get out of your car to vote: a poll worker will bring out a ballot to you to fill out curbside
- Voters with a disability or aged 70 or older can move to the front of the voting line in Alabama
People with disabilities have struggled disproportionately during the pandemic. Voting in person, already a challenge for some people, has become a potential health risk.
To ease these fears, some states sent mail-in ballots to every resident automatically; in others, you need to request them. If you are unsure of your best option, contact your local government representative’s office for how you should proceed.