Capitol Correspondence - 09.29.20

New York Times Highlights Voting Challenges for Disability Community During the Pandemic

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We encourage our members to use the reporting below by the New York Times to inform their plans to help individuals they support and Direct Support Professionals vote in this coming election. We also note this infographic by Politico Data Point which explains which states are shifting back to paper ballots during the pandemic. Finally, members interested in following broader voting discussions might find relevant this explainer by Politico Data Point, on how envelop design can facilitate elections.

As reported by the New York Times:

“The number of Americans at risk of disenfranchisement is huge: According to new projections from researchers at Rutgers University, more than 38 million eligible voters have disabilities. That’s more than 16 percent of the electorate.

This total — nearly that of the entire population of California — includes an estimated 21.3 million eligible voters with mobility disabilities, 13.1 million with cognitive disabilities, 11.6 million with hearing disabilities and seven million with visual disabilities. (Many voters fall into multiple categories.) The disenfranchisement of even a small fraction could swing the election.


Most accessibility discussions this year have centered on expanding mail-in voting, and that does make a difference: Dr. Schur said research showed higher turnout among people with disabilities when states allowed no-excuse absentee voting. She and Dr. Kruse are voting by mail themselves because Dr. Kruse has reduced lung function as a result of a spinal cord injury, putting him at high risk for the coronavirus.

But mail-in voting alone won’t allow everyone with a disability to vote.

Joanne Wolf, 64, of Cincinnati, missed an election for the first time she could remember because she couldn’t find an accessible way to vote in the Ohio primary. She has multiple sclerosis and didn’t feel safe voting in person, as she normally does, during the pandemic. But she can’t write by hand or sign an absentee ballot — when she completed one several years ago using a signature stamp, it was rejected.

Asked about Ms. Wolf’s situation, a spokeswoman for the Ohio secretary of state said a signature stamp was permissible for people whose disabilities required it. After The New York Times told her this, Ms. Wolf submitted a ballot request to the Hamilton County Board of Elections using her stamp and was again rejected.


The obstacles created by the coronavirus are piling on top of the ones voters with disabilities already face, including polling sites that, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, are inaccessible to people who use wheelchairs or have other mobility difficulties.

Xian Horn, who has cerebral palsy, recalled finding the wheelchair-accessible entrance of her polling place in New York City blocked by trash cans. It is often simpler, she said, to have her mother help her up the stairs of the main entrance.


The barriers don’t stop at the door. Polling sites are required to have accessible voting machines — for instance, ones that can read text aloud for people with visual disabilities — but several voters recalled showing up for past elections and being told that the only accessible machine was broken, or that poll workers didn’t know how to operate it.


Historically, disability rights were a bipartisan issue. The Americans with Disabilities Act was introduced by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, a Democrat, and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush, a Republican, in 1990. But recent discussions of disability policy have come overwhelmingly from Democrats.


Dr. Kruse, the Rutgers professor, said the partisan breakdown of people with disabilities was similar to the breakdown of the overall population, which means ‘both parties have an interest in getting people with disabilities out to vote.’