Getting Disabled Voters Off the Sidelines?

[Image courtesy of pollingplacephotoproject]

Last week, USA Today ran a story about a study of disabled voters that suggests that as many as 3.2 million disabled voters are “sidelined” in the electoral process.

The study, Sidelined or Mainstreamed? Political Participation and Attitudes of
People with Disabilities in the United States
by Lisa Schur of Rutgers and Meera Adya of Syracuse, finds that this large number of “sidelined” voters is the product of several different factors: lower motivation and reduced mobility plus, in some cases, the persistence of barriers at the polls.

This last observation is somewhat puzzling given the apparent focus – especially since passage of the Help America Vote Act – on improving accessibility for disabled voters. And yet, as the study found, accessibility issues remain: a GAO report from 2009 found that only 27 percent of polling places nationwide had “no features that might impede access to the
voting area for people with disabilities”, with another 45 percent presenting some barriers but offering curbside voting.

These figures suggest that there is still much to do in the area of improving access for voters with disabilities. What does seem clear is that much of what we’ve done to date – for example, HAVA’s mandate of accessible voting machines – simply isn’t working (at least in terms of the numbers of voters taking advantage of such machines). Moreover, as the field of election administration continues to change with the growing use of absentee, vote-by-mail and other non-precinct place voting, election officials and advocates alike need to look for ways to make the process work for willing voters of all abilities.

One approach I have heard with increasing frequency is to look at ways to design the voting process to make it accessible to all voters from the start, rather than look for ways to alter existing processes and procedures to accommodate disabled voters.

Either way, the issues and challenges raised by the Schur/Adya study and highlighted by USA Today should be a reminder that the issue of access to the ballot box is still a difficult one for voters with disabilities – and should be on the list of any election official seeking to make the ballot available to every willing voter in their community.

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