October 02, 2020

Disabilities and Voting

The pdf for the issue in which this article appears is available for download: Bifocal, Vol. 42, Issue 1.)

As the 2020 presidential election approaches, the ABA Commission on Law and Aging set out to learn what assistance was available to help adults with disabilities get out and exercise their Constitutional right to vote.[1] Our goals were twofold: to learn whether this information was easy to  find online, and to understand the kind of assistance states provide for voters asking for help with the physical act of voting.

Looking at state government websites in all 50 states, we learned that information on voter assistance was easily available online in 41 states. But guidance for voters asking for physical assistance was harder to come by: Only 21 of those 41 states carried information that we were able to find.[1] It’s likely that other states provide physical assistance, however, the information was not easily accessible.

            In states that allow physical assistance with the voting process, voters are permitted to bring someone with them to provide help but only if that person is not an employer or agent of a labor union. Some states allow election officials or precinct workers to assist voters in the booth.  Of the 21 states in which we found guidance on hands-on assistance, 12 allow poll workers to help voters. In four of those states, one poll worker from each of the two major political parties were required to provide assistance.[2] The goal was to avoid influence by the person assisting with the voting process. In nine states -- Arkansas, Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming -- we were unable to easily locate online voter assistance guidance for voters with disabilities.

Many states are focusing on technology and training for frontline poll workers. Texas became the first state to require that all new voting systems be accessible to voters with disabilities and provide a practical and effective means for these individuals to cast a ballot. Other states such as South Dakota, North Carolina and Montana provide the voter with advanced technology by using a specialized voting machine called an AutoMARK™, or ExpressVote®, enabling people with disabilities to vote independently and privately. The AutoMARK has a feature that magnifies the ballot for voters with visual impairment. It also has audio instructions and ballot narration.

   Even just entering a polling place can be a challenge for disabled voters. In an increasing number of states, voters are permitted to cast a ballot curbside if it is too difficult to enter a building where the booths are located. Election officials, generally one from each political party in partisan elections, will bring voting materials to a person’s vehicle. Approximately eight states provide this service on voting day[3].

Addressing Barriers

People who are visually impaired, have physical or movement challenges, or have difficulty operating voting machines, are among those who face the greatest barriers to voting. Those with movement limitations may find the physical act of pushing buttons, touching a touch screen or marking a scannable ballot difficult to impossible. Perhaps not surprisingly, people with disabilities continue to vote at a lower rate than most others.

            Of more than 153 million registered U.S. voters, 14.3 million are disabled, according to the U.S. Census and the American Association of People with Disabilities. 

To address barriers to voting, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002. The law provides funding to help states update equipment, such as replacing outdated voting machines and switching to electronic systems to improve election administration. HAVA sets the minimum standards for improving voting. States should be encouraged to go above and beyond those standards to make sure everyone is able to vote. Improving the machinery and process is a first step; informing voters of what accommodations are available and how to access them is needed to fulfill the promise of this legislation on voting day.

About COVID-19 

The focus of this research was on reasonable accommodations in traditional polling places and not on a potential shift to, say, mail-in ballots due to pandemic. However, if mail-in ballots are heavily relied upon, states must assure that persons with vision or mobility challenges are able to exercise the voting process. For online voting, this requires careful creation of software that is accessible, including building in screen readers with a point-and-click, numeric entry and audio response options. For mail-in voting, this requires large print, language options, easy to mark, and mail voting materials. It also entails the creation of clear rules on who can assist the voter in completing the mail and/or online voting to avoid undue influence.    

The right to vote is central to our democracy. Making the voting process accessible strengthens the rights of every American. Voters who believe they may have difficulties with casting a ballot should research the information for their state before going to a polling place. It may be a good idea to call local voting officials before the presidential election on November 3, explain what assistance you think you’ll need, and ask how to make sure you will receive the help that is allowed under state rules. Every vote counts and every voter must be empowered to do so.

[1] We did not address the issue of mental capacity in this project, we limited our inquiry to the assistance with the physical act of voting. Questions of cognitive disability and voting are addressed in the Commission’s research on voting rights available at https://www.americanbar.org/groups/law_aging/resources/voting_cognitive_impairments/

[1] Alabama, Alaska, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington.

[2] Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky.

[3] Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, Iowa, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin.