As of May 19, the novel coronavirus has claimed the lives of more than 90,000 Americans, with roughly one-third of fatalities occurring in nursing homes or other congregate settings where people with disabilities are institutionalized. While U.S. officials struggle to figure out how to move forward, many states are grappling with how to secure free, fair, and safe elections for all citizens. Multiple states such as Ohio and Georgia have postponed their elections, while others have pushed forward as planned. Policymakers have proposed expanding vote by mail as a way to protect the health of voters and poll workers while proceeding with scheduled elections.
Voting by mail requires municipalities to distribute ballots to voters before election day. States give voters a window during which they are required to mail back their ballot to an election office, or drop it off at the office or a designated location, in a timely fashion in order to be counted in the election. Voting by mail eliminates the need for voters to visit in-person polling stations and permits them to vote from the safety of their homes. Despite being a convenient option for some voters, however, vote by mail is not a one-size-fits-all solution; in fact, it is inaccessible to many disabled voters who rely on in-person voting accessibility features to guarantee their right to a secure, private, and independent vote. Revising state plans to couple the expansion of vote by mail with in-person voting options is of the utmost importance and would ensure that disabled voters are able to access their right to vote in this historic election.
The challenge of providing accessible voting options
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. election system was inaccessible to many people with disabilities. All polling places are required to follow the guidelines of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and provide incredibly helpful accommodations to voters that they cannot access from home. However, the Government Accountability Office found that during the 2016 election, at least 60 percent of polling places were inaccessible to disabled voters. This number has been largely unchanged for the past several election cycles.
There is not a universal solution when developing a voting system that can meet the needs of the entire disability community. Accommodations for one disability will not necessarily work for another, and in some cases accommodations for one person can actually be an obstacle for another.
When disabled voters choose to vote in person at a polling location, there are many accommodations available to them to cast a private and secure vote. The ADA requires that polling locations carry accessible voting equipment or direct-recording electronic devices to assist disabled voters with casting their ballot. From enlarging text on voting machine screens to using ballot-marking devices, disabled voters have a wide variety of options to ensure they are able to carry out their civic duty independently and privately. There are voting systems available which can provide a wide range of accommodations to support voters who are blind or have low vision; voters with limited manual dexterity, or limited ability to reach or stretch; as well as voters with limited or no mobility. The in-person accommodations mandated by the ADA are vital, and they are typically only available at in-person polling locations.
Vote by mail, meanwhile, provides voters with as much time as they need to vote in advance of an election as well as the opportunity to vote from the comfort of their home. A person who needs additional time to process information has the time to view the ballot and conduct necessary research on the listed candidates and initiatives. Vote by mail also allows voters with physical disabilities to avoid the stressful process of trying to navigate transportation and inaccessible polling places. For people with compromised immune systems, vote by mail means not having to risk getting sick.
Yet while vote by mail offers benefits for some of the 61 million people with disabilities in the country, there are others for whom it presents challenges. Therefore, while hand-marked paper ballots are widely seen as the most secure way to vote, they are not a perfect solution for all voters.
States must put options in place that allow voters with disabilities to have a say in this historic election. In addition to expanding vote by mail, states must allow in-person voting—and make sure it’s safe by following polling place guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Expanding vote by mail must be coupled with in-person voting
By expanding vote by mail, states could drastically reduce the number of voters going to in-person polling places and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Failing to expand vote by mail could end in voters going to the polls en masse and spreading the coronavirus to more people. However, expanding vote by mail must be coupled with a preservation of in-person voting in order to be successful.
As previously stated, in-person voting options are crucial for disabled voters, allowing them to cast a private and independent vote. These options must remain available. However, voters’ health should remain the top priority for states as the nation continues to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Policymakers must do everything in their power to provide voters with a healthy environment in which to cast a ballot.
If proper health precautions are not taken, in-person voting can be incredibly harmful to communities—and particularly dangerous for disabled individuals. On April 7, Wisconsin went ahead with its primary election. The state, which allows no-excuse absentee voting, reduced the number of polling stations in Milwaukee from 180 to just five. Even with these changes, the state lacked the infrastructure necessary to handle the increase in vote by mail and struggled to follow adequate public health protocols that may have prevented further contaminations at in-person polling stations.
This example highlights the importance of coupling in-person voting with the expansion of vote by mail as well as what’s at stake if both are not properly managed. Ahead of the upcoming election, states need to provide adequate resources to local polling places and poll workers, centering safety for those who do require in-person options. Increasing early voting is one critical step both to minimize crowds on election day and to ensure accessibility for individuals who depend on public transportation or who work jobs that make it difficult to vote.
Following CDC polling place guidelines
States that continue in-person voting must also take additional steps to ensure voters and poll workers are safe and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. The CDC has published guidelines for states to follow on how to safely conduct in-person voting. These include encouraging drive-up voting for those who are eligible, increasing physical-distancing measures at polling places, and sanitizing equipment often.
The disability community is diverse in its needs, so a one-size-fits-all approach does not exist. Some voters rely on the accommodations that in-person voting provides; this option should remain available when it can be used safely. Although a cross-disability approach requires an in-person option, the expansion of vote by mail will also be critical to ensuring a large number of voters are able to access their right to vote. States should follow CDC guidelines and the U.S. Department of Justice’s ADA checklist to make sure that disabled voters are able to cast their ballots in a safe environment.
Voting matters now more than ever. There are significant issues at stake in the next election—including the nation’s response to the global pandemic—and excluding the disability community would be devastating and unrepresentative. Making sure disabled voters are able to cast a ballot freely, fairly, and safely should be of the utmost importance for lawmakers.
Sabrina Gonzalez is a fellow with the Disability Justice Initiative through the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Public Policy Fellowship.
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