Reducing barriers to voting for people with disabilities

When you think of Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), you may think of a decorated combat pilot who, as a member of Congress, has made life easier for veterans, new mothers and babies.

You probably would not think of a person with disabilities who has recently faced a barrier to voting.

All of that, however, is true.

One in four people in the United States has a disability, making the disabled community one of the largest voting blocs in our country. Yet, they face enormous challenges in exercising their right to vote, starting with the most basic: polling place accessibility.

Photo showing a sign indicating reserved parking for voters with disabilities

A helicopter pilot who lost both legs and partial use of her right arm in Iraq, Duckworth described how the last time she went to vote, she arrived at the polls to find that the only wheelchair-accessible voting machine was broken.

“You wouldn’t think that in 2021, simple accessibility would still be an issue 30 years after passage of the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act], but it is,” Duckworth told participants at a forum sponsored by the Albert Shanker Institute and the Century Foundation.

Luckily, the senator had come prepared with a prosthetic and managed to cast her ballot. But if a senator faces roadblocks to voting, think of how common those roadblocks must be.


Perilous times for democracy

With the nation’s top thinkers on high alert about threats to our democracy, the forum convened Duckworth and distinguished experts on Dec. 8 so they could brainstorm how to protect voting rights for people with disabilities.

Ralph Neas, Century’s senior counsel on voting rights, introduced the two keynote speakers, disability rights icon Judith “Judy” Heumann and Maria Town, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD). They were joined by moderator Wade Henderson, interim president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, as well as panelists Duckworth; Mia Ives-Rublee, director of the disability justice initiative for the Center for American Progress; Lisa Schur, professor of labor studies and employment relations and director of the program for disability research at Rutgers University; and the Albert Shanker Institute’s executive director, Mary Cathryn Ricker.

Photo of ASI Disability Panel participants

As of this fall, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, 19 GOP-controlled state legislatures have passed 33 laws designed to override elections or restrict voting for a broad array of Americans. It’s the most serious challenge to democracy we’ve faced in generations, Neas said. He quoted Justin Dart, a driving force behind the ADA, as directing his followers to “Vote as if your life depended on it.” Because it does.

Judy Heumann described her early upbringing with parents who instilled in her from earliest memory the duty to vote. Heumann was stricken with polio at age 2; when she reached voting age, her father had to pull her up the stairs of their polling place. “But I voted,” she said, adding that recently, she has become deeply concerned about voter suppression.

Despite provisions in the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, Heumann said recent events have confirmed that large swaths of society are not being treated as equal. People with disabilities are one of the last groups emerging who have to insist on their right to participate in democracy, and to assert that every vote counts. “Our voice matters and our vote matters,” she said.

Introducing the panelists, Henderson credited activists in the disability community with teaching him that he is TAB, or temporarily able-bodied. He dedicated the discussion to the memory of former Sen. Bob Dole, who had died a few days before. “We disagreed on many issues, but we found common ground on voting rights for all and human rights for people with disabilities,” Henderson said.

Ives-Rublee of CAP said she doesn’t think the accommodations needed for voting are anything special—they’re required by law and should be available. But one in nine disabled voters faces barriers to the voting box, she said, and it’s important to understand that a quarter of African Americans, nearly a third of Native Americans and a large proportion of people living in poverty have disabilities. Blocking these people from the polls blocks a large portion of the electorate.

What’s more, roughly half of people with disabilities cast a vote by mail last year, and many of the voter suppression laws will make it harder to vote by mail. “That’s an extreme problem,” Ives-Rublee said.

“When you build in accommodations, you are making voting accessible to everyone,” added Ricker. “When you leave them out entirely, or impose laws that are restrictive, you are definitely sending a message to [a quarter of all U.S. voters] that their vote doesn’t matter.”

Duckworth said many voter suppression laws are aimed at people who tend to vote Democratic—people inclined to vote for universal healthcare or immigration reform. For example, she said Georgia has passed rules undermining voters for Sen. Raphael Warnock. “I’m sorry to say that’s the case but that’s what’s happening,” she said.

By the same token, Schur said that although making it harder to vote clearly has a disproportionate effect on people with disabilities, the partisan affiliations of disabled people actually follow the same pattern as the general population—so voting ought not to be a partisan issue.

If you’re trying to block people from voting, you may be blocking your own constituents, Ives-Rublee pointed out.


What can be done

In 2013, by a 5-4 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that monitored states with histories of voting injustices—many of them part of the old Confederacy. So, what can Congress do?

Duckworth was clear: Pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

Right now in this country, “we’re well on the path to ‘Tell us how many beans are in the jar before you can vote.’ You laugh, but I’m not joking,” she said.

Henderson made a pitch for both the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. “Both bills are critically important,” he said.

The panelists discussed eliminating the filibuster. Duckworth said the only path right now is to restore a “talking filibuster,” as opposed to ending it completely, which would require more votes than are now available.

The irony, Henderson said, is that it takes only 51 Senate votes to put someone on the U.S. Supreme Court to threaten the interests of the majority of Americans, but because of the filibuster, 60 votes are required to advance voting rights legislation, which would advance the interests of virtually all Americans.

Each panelist offered personal and collective actions they plan to take toward expanding voting rights. Most are actions we all can take.

Duckworth said we can register people to vote and turn out voters. We can contact our representatives and tell them voting rights are important to us.

Ives-Rublee also encouraged advocacy for voting rights, plus local actions like poll monitoring and providing transportation to the polls. Even if you’re stuck at home, she said, there are tons of ways to get involved.

If you’re TAB, Ricker said, look for volunteer opportunities. Look for leaders in the disability community and do what they ask. Also, call and tell your senators that you expect action on voting rights.

Schur emphasized how having good data not only illuminates problems but helps us solve them. To that end, she said, we need more data on voting by people with disabilities. She also cited the need for more voter education and outreach. Lots of people with disabilities, especially in the pandemic, might not feel comfortable gathering in person but can participate in online groups.

Like so many other leading scholars and public figures, AAPD’s Town said she’s “struck by one thing: the fragility of our democracy,” when the right to vote can be denied by a single broken voting machine.

Town pointed to her organization’s REV UP voting campaign to promote civic engagement and build the political and economic power of people with disabilities. People’s lives do depend on voting, she said. It’s clear when you see states deciding that disabled people do not need lifesaving care, or that it’s OK for Black disabled people to stand in voting lines twice as long as white disabled people. She added: “Voting is a way of saying that we are here, that we deserve to be here.”

[Annette Licitra]