Americans With Disabilities Head to the Polls With Mixed Results in Accessibility

Published November 3, 2021

On Tuesday, November 2, millions of Americans headed to the polls. Some ballots determined the fate of state governors while others focused on local city council seats and issues. While voting is a right, it isn’t always accessible. Here’s how precincts across the country helped voters with disabilities and where they are lacking.

Local election groups worked to make voting accessible

How prepared were local precincts to accommodate voters with disabilities this year? The answers vary. Stories from around the country speak to the efforts of disability advocates while also highlighting the work that needs to be done. Here are a few headlines from various towns and cities in America.

  • The City of Boston debuted an Accessible Electronic Voting System, which creates accessible electronic vote by mail ballots for this election. These systems are compatible with screen readers and other text-to-speech software.
  • Disability advocates in Detroit filed a formal complaint after web pages related to voting were not accessible to screen readers. Community members continue to call on election workers to make sure polling sites are physically accessible and volunteers have the right training to help voters with disabilities.
  • Election officials in Minnesota are proud of the work they have done over the past few years to increase accessibility in voting. Attorney Justin Page shared a story from a past election where voters were sent to the second floor to vote but the elevator was broken. The Minnesota Council on Disability has worked to increase disability parking, implement more accessible voting machines, and train volunteers to spot and report problems.
  • Leaders for the Center for Disability Rights in Rochester, New York are increasing the number of staff members that work at polling stations. This allows employees to quickly help a voter who needs assistance and identify the accommodations they need. Better training of these team members also increases the chances that issues will be addressed quickly and effectively.

While accessibility advocates and election officials continue to work together, there are still unaddressed problems related to voting with a disability and some cities have more work to do than others.

Americans with disabilities continue to turn out to vote

There is good news for voting advocates who want to increase accessibility: the number of people with disabilities who vote continues to increase each year. In 2016, 16 million Americans with disabilities voted. This number increased to 17.7 million in 2020. These numbers emphasize the importance of making voting accessible.

The disabled community makes up a significant number of American voters. The CDC reports that 61 million adults in the United States live with a disability, making up 26 percent of the population. Unfortunately, this means that a large number of Americans with disabilities still didn’t vote in the 2020 presidential elections.

According to a report by Rutgers University, Americans with disabilities lag behind the rest of the population in voter turnout.

“If people with disabilities voted at the same rate as people without disabilities who have the same demographic characteristics, there would be about 1.75 million more voters,” they write.

So what holds people with disabilities back from voting? And what lead to the participation increase in 2020?

More people voted in 2020 as a whole

The first thing to remember is that more people voted in 2020 compared to 2016. Almost 159.7 million Americans cast their ballots in the 2020 election compared to 136.7 million in 2016. By this statistic alone, it’s safe to conclude that the number of people with disabilities who voted was also higher. For clearer data, it’s better to look at the rate of voting rather than the number of voters.

Additionally, presidential voter turnout typically drives the highest participation rates. This means it’s not fair to compare presidential ballots cast in 2020 with the local election ballots in 2021.

However, there were a few reasons why more people voted in 2020 – other than the polarizing candidates. Many voting advocates have worked to make the process more accessible and accomodating for all communities. There was also a greater push for vote-by-mail participation.

Vote by mail options create accessibility

The COVID-19 pandemic drove countless Americans to vote by mail (or submit absentee ballots). This was seen as a safer alternative to lining up in person, especially for immunocompromised Americans. Vote by mail advocates have also promoted the practice as being easier for adults as a whole – allowing them to vote on their own time from their homes, rather than missing work and finding childcare to cast their ballots in person. The ACLU highlights voting by mail as a significant way to promote accessibility.

“Vote by mail has always been the safest and most accessible way to cast a ballot, because it allows [Americans] to avoid the challenges of getting to the polls, waiting in line, and facing physical barriers at the polling place,” they write.

That being said, not all states accept absentee ballots. While many regions will accept mail-in ballots from any citizen, some states have strict guidelines about who can and cannot vote by mail. Disability is covered in many of these laws, but it still places the burden of proof on the voter, as opposed to a no-questions-asked mail-in ballot.

While polling places are required to be fully accessible, many locations lack facilities, signage, and proper voting machines to accommodate all voters. These are essential because voting by mail isn’t the best option for all voters with disabilities.

“For some people, voting by mail is great,” says Douglas Kruse at Rutgers. “For people with visual impairments, it’s really bad, because they can't vote confidentially.”

Americans with disabilities do not vote as one

Along with promoting accessibility, candidates should also remember that Americans with disabilities do not share one set of values and will not vote as one unified voice. Candidates cannot act as if they are guaranteed the “disabled vote” or believe they represent the interests of all Americans with disabilities.

“It's a community that historically has splintered into smaller populations, each lobbying for specific needs in areas such as hearing or vision loss, mobility challenges or developmental disabilities without coalescing into a larger political bloc,” says Gene Myers for NorthJersey.com “That has left such voters out of initial discussions about public policy.”

All elected officials, regardless of political party, should take steps to make voting more accessible for Americans with disabilities. While many advocacy groups and governing bodies continue to make great strides in improving voting accessibility, there is still a long way to go. The lessons learned this week will prepare advocates to make changes in 2022 and beyond.

To learn more about voting accommodations, turn to our digital accessibility guidelines, which discuss the use of screen readers and other tools to help Americans with disabilities vote.

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