Disability Voting Rights: Fast Facts

The following laws are in place to ensure that people with disabilities can vote in the U.S.

  • Title II of The Americans with Disabilities Act: Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires state and local governments to ensure that individuals with disabilities have full and equal voting opportunities, including site selection, voter registration, and casting of ballots. The ADA has a checklist for polling places to help election officials make their polling places accessible to people with all disabilities.
  • Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA): The VRA requires election officials to allow a voter who has a disability to receive assistance from a person of the voter’s choice, and prohibits conditioning the right to vote on a citizen’s ability to read, write, attain a certain level of education, or pass a test.
  • Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984 (VAEHA): VAEHA requires accessible polling places for federal elections, or alternative means of voting on Election Day.
  • National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA): NVRA requires that all offices that offer state-funded programs or public assistance primarily to individuals with disabilities also provide the opportunity to register to vote in federal elections.
  • Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA): HAVA requires jurisdictions responsible for conducting federal elections to provide at least one accessible (and private) voting system for individuals with disabilities at each polling place in a federal election.

How Effective Are Disability Voting Rights Laws?

Even with disability voting rights laws in place, however, not all polling places are accessible. Some polling places have been found to not accommodate individuals with physical disabilities because they lack ramps, have narrow doorways, or fail to provide handicap entrances or parking. Other polling places have been reported to have accessible polling machines that aren’t turned on, earphones that aren’t working, etc. Still others have been told to have new or inexperienced poll workers who are not properly trained to set-up or operate accessible polling machines. A study by the Government Accountability Office inspected 137 polling places on Election Day in 2016 and found that roughly ⅔ of them had at least one error in accessibility.

How Are Voters with Cognitive, Developmental, or Social Disabilities Accommodated?

When it comes to people with mental illness or intellectual disabilities, laws do not agree on their right to vote. In fact, according to Kimberly Leonard of The Atlantic, as of 2012, “about 30 states and the District of Columbia have laws in their constitutions that can limit people with mental disabilities from voting if they have been ruled ‘mentally incapacitated,’ or incompetent, by a court.” Each state has its own qualifications for what makes a person too incompetent to vote, whether it be that they are receiving treatment, they have been diagnosed with an intellectual disability, or some other reason.

One such example is a 2016 law in place in California that states that individuals with guardians need to expressly state that they want to vote in order to do so. This law has reportedly cost 30,000 Californians their right to vote.

What Are Some Other Contributors to Voting Inequality Among US Citizens with Disabilities?

The accessibility of the polling place may not necessarily be what keeps individuals with disabilities from voting. Oftentimes, even when voters with physical or mental disabilities do have access to everything they need to vote, they will have to do so with the assistance of a poll worker, friend, or family member. Thus, they do not always receive privacy when voting as other Americans do. For this reason, though a polling place may be deemed “accessible,” it can still create problems that might turn people with disabilities away from voting.

What Does This Mean for Voter Turnout?

With these barriers in place, it isn’t surprising to see that the voter turnout among US citizens with disabilities is poor. According to a survey done by Rutgers University, voter turnout among people with disabilities has gone down steadily over the years, from 57.3% in 2008, to 56.8% in 2012, and finally to 55.9% in 2016. Moreover, certain individual states had much lower rates. In West Virginia, only 46% of people with disabilities who were eligible to vote participated in the 2016 election. In Kentucky, it was only 42.5%.

Some states, however, have made great improvements over the years to successfully increase voter turnout among their citizens with disabilities. In Colorado, for example, Denver’s polling places were shown to satisfy a majority of accessibility criteria, and El Paso County polling places satisfied all of the accessibility criteria in the 2016 election. These improvements over the years made it such that 69% of registered voters with disabilities in the state voted in that election.

Are These Limitations Just?

Some people defend the limitations on individuals with disabilities in voting because they feel they will limit voter fraud, but human rights activists believe the limitations perpetuate stigmas about people with disabilities. In general, a voting right is just that: a right for all adult citizens in the U.S. It remains discriminatory, then, to have any barriers to voting for individuals with disabilities, no matter their capabilities or circumstances. Media coverage over the past few years has focused on eligible voters choosing not to participate out of apathy, while people with disabilities have been wanting to vote and struggling to do so. Equal rights in the voting arena will not be achieved until all of the laws in place (above) are upheld across every state.

  • ADA: The Americans with Disabilities Act and Other Federal Laws Protecting the Rights of Voters with Disabilities
  • The Center for an Accessible Society: Voting and People with Disabilities
  • Disability Scoop: How Voters With Disabilities Are Blocked From the Ballot Box
  • The Atlantic: Keeping the ‘Mentally Incompetent’ From Voting
  • Vice News: Disabled and disenfranchised
  • NPR: Disabled and Fighting for the Right to Vote
  • Disability Scoop: How Voters With Disabilities Are Blocked From the Ballot Box

Disability Voting Rights - Fast Facts

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