an official US ballot envelope, purple, with a blue cloth facemask above it.

I have participated in every election since I’ve legally been able to. I feel really fortunate to be able to say that.

I’m deeply aware of the privledge behind that, not only due to my whiteness, but also because I’ve lived in areas with minimal waits, and my disability doesn’t require any special accomodations in order to vote.

Given the unprecidented challenges and significance of this year’s election, I thought it only appropriate to talk about not only the importance of voting while disabled, but also the struggles and victories of the disabled community and disabled voting bloc in the US.

Brief history of disabled voting

While there haven’t been specific laws banning disabled people from voting, there is a long history of challenges to our ability to vote.

The first legal protections for disabled voting was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which allowed disabled people to designate a person of their choice to help them to vote.

The first civil rights protection, the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, contained section 504, which focused on the necessity of accessibility in government-funded spaces. We’ve talked about that before, getting the Rehabilitation Act passed with section 504 intact was a huge step towards the civil rights of people with disabilities.

Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984 was designed to ensure the accessibility of all voting places, but there are still many barriers, especially in terms of the definition of ‘accessible'(which is varied and unreliable even today), and the definition of ‘useful voting options’ for disabled people who find the spaces inaccessible.

The Help America Vote Act of 2002 was intended to improve the voting system and election administration by defining the minimal standards. In 2005, a series of guidelines were adopted specifically ensure that voting systems met these minimal requirements, including for accessibility.

One of many challenges is that doorways need to be wide enough to admit electric wheelchairs and other mobility devices

Despite all of this, in 2016, almost one-third of disabled voters reported challenges in casting their ballots. The specific challenges varied but ranged from getting into the building, being unable to read the ballot, and being unable to use the voting machine.

It is our civic duty to vote and it is our right to do so, but that doesn’t mean that it’s as safe or easy to do as it should be.

Too often, the civil rights of people with disabilities are not taken seriously, and our rights are trampled. Too often, ableism and ignorance raise their ugly heads.

The disabled community is an often-forgotten voting bloc, even though we make up nearly one quarter of the US population.

We are underrepresented in politics

Like most minority/disempowered identities, the disabled community is underrepresented in politics.

The calculations used in a recent study defines 15.7% of the population as being disabled. Only 10.3% of elected officials have a disability.

A majority of them are in local government(12.3%) while under 7% of elected state and federal government officials are disabled.

We deserve better representation, but that issue exists, as I mentioned, for all minority and disempowered identities.

There is a much higher percentage of white cis abled straight men in political positions than in our society.

Disability is an often-forgotten community in terms of campaigning as well

It can be hard to decide who to vote for, and the disabled community seems to be predominantly neglected by political candidates.

While candidates are now starting to pay attention to other minority identity votors(concerns about the black, latino, and LGBT votes are being mentioned more now than in the past), the disabled community is mentioned less frequently and rarely is targeted in ads or speeches.

While having the right to vote is essential, having candidates who recognize us is also important

This leaves many of us feeling marginalized and ignored, and lowers our eagerness to vote. No candidate is speaking to us, though healthcare and social supports are often systems the disabled community is concerned about.

These topics are rarely mentioned, as the poor is another community generally ignored by political candidates.

In this year’s presidential race, as in most, disability wasn’t front and center.

Many campaigns didn’t bother to consider the disabled community at all, while others made minimal effort. Kamala Harris was the first candidate to specifically speak about disability rights and inclusion, but for most candidates, there was some digging required to find useful information.

In many cases, including our current president, the disabled community was mostly ignored. The attention that was paid, was not positive.

It’s hard to feel enthusiastic when no politician bothers to talk directly to you

We are a potentially powerful voting bloc

To understand the scale of things, 14.3 million disabled voters participated in 2018, while the Hispanic/Latino voting bloc contained 11.7 million voters .

There are a lot of people living in disabled households(households in which at least one member is disabled). It’s estimated that 24.5 million people are part of a disabled household(14.3 million disabled people, plus 10.2 million people who live with somebody with a disability).

With the number of disabled voters increasing(49% of the disabled population voted in 2018, as opposed to 40% in 2014), we have the potential to have a large impact in politics.

We are a force to be reckoned with, and one that has been ignored by too many politicians.

If you have not yet decided who you are voting for(or if you just want to know what politicians are willing to do for our community), here is information on our presidential candidates positions related to disability. I highly recommend checking out #CripTheVote, a nonpartesian disability voting movement.

Please vote this year – we really have the potential to have a huge impact.

Making sure you can vote

If you aren’t sure if you can legally vote, the rules for each state are available here.

You can double-check your registration by following instructions here.

If you aren’t registered, the Poor People’s Campaign has connected with a helpful app to help you get registered. It isn’t too late!

You can also use this link to get voting reminders associated with your state and stay up-to-date on any adjustments that may occur due to COVID-19.

Each state is handling things differently, so it’s really important to understand what your state is doing this year.

What’s your voting plan?

We need to do what we always have to do before participating in things we care about: make a plan.

2020 is especially challenging because of the national havoc wreaked by Covid-19, and the continued risks we face due to the pandemic.

Ballots must be turned in or postmarked before November 3, election day.

My home state of New Jersey is mailing ballots to all active registered voters and then giving a variety of options(including the mail) for returning the ballots, which must be delivered(before 8 PM) or postmarked by November 3.

If you can vote early, and/or be mailed your ballot, I encourage you to. Recieving your ballot by mail reduces your risk of exposure to Covid-19(and just about all of us have weaker immune systems than the average person), and gives you a wider window of opportunity for voting.

If mail-in isn’t an option, going to the polls early also will likely minimize your contact with others. Be strategic in your voting if you can be – go when there are likely to be fewer people around(and wear a mask if you can).

I utterly understand concerns about returning ballots by mail, given the issues with the post office, but most states do have alternative options.

It’s often possible, for example, to hand-deliver several ballots directly to your local board of elections – something you may be able to do with a close friend or family member(either go together or designate them as the bearer of your ballot), or possibly as a combined effort with neighbors or a local group you trust.

This year, New Jersey also has designated delivery boxes that are being monitered and available for people to place their ballots in as of today.

If you cannot use a paper ballot, your right to vote is still protected, though you may need to be creative in safely and legally casting your vote.

Usually, you have the option of selecting a person to help you fill out your ballot, and they are able to sign off as having done so.

If that isn’t an option for you, polling places are required by law to have accessible polling options.

I know that in New Jersey, accessible voting machines will be available at the polling places(there will be much fewer polling locations than usual), and the only people who will use them are disabled people who need those functions.

Anybody else who goes to polling place will be given a paper ballot to fill out and turn in.

Do you want to help others vote?

Less than half of the disabled community votes. The Association for the Advancement fo People With Disabilities(AAPD) is running a campaign(REV-UP) specifically to support disabled voters. If you want to join them, sign up here.

Disabled people who are employed vote at about the same rate as abled people. The difference therefore is in the disabled people who do not work.

That makes a lot of sense to me, as many of us in that position are struggling with energy, motivation, and self-doubt.

Those of us with a plan and the energy can help those who don’t to develop one!

Because our community is so often ignored and minimized, it’s hard to feel represented, and so getting up the energy to vote can be difficult, especially considering that despite all the laws protecting our right to vote, we are often pushed out and given extra hurdles in terms of being physically able to vote.

Many disabled folks who have difficulty communicating(especially with verbal communication) find themselves challenged by gatekeepers who question their intellectual capabilities simply because communication is challenging.

There are a lot of extra challenges for us. Too often, we also are part of other marginalized groups as well, and face discrimination based on those identities too.

Those of us who have the energy to do more can push to ensure that other disabled folks who may be struggling also are able to vote.

Check in with your friends, neighbors, or nearby affinity groups to see if other disabled folks have a plan to vote.

Also check in with any online community you are a part of and see if you can help other members make plans if they are uncertain.

Share this post with others so that they, too, have access to the information they need to be able to vote.

Understand the rules for your state and community, and if possible ask questions to ensure that the solutions are accessible and useful for all potential voters.

Educate people about disability etiquitte and needs, so that they too can help ensure that spaces are accessible and poll workers are helpers, not gatekeepers.

We have the right to vote. Let’s use it to improve our world.

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6 Comments

  1. Hi Alison. Thanks for another great post. I’m not American, but I’m following closely since my husband is. I was able to vote for the first time in 17 years from abroad last year for the Canadian elections and wow, it was a great experience. It felt so good to be included finally. We had a record number of overseas Canadians voting last year. Based on what I’ve heard from my husband and American friends here in Taiwan, the process seems a little more complicated, but they’re all voting! I hope with all my heart that things go well this year.

    1. Thank you Carrie!
      I’m so glad to hear that they are voting! I am really concerned about this year’s elections, especially with the president repeatedly suggesting that the process is ‘rigged’. I am worried about my safety and the safety of all other minority identities in this country. I tried to keep this post from pushing towards who to vote for, and focused on how and why to vote.
      I hope my post can help other disabled folks make their voices heard, because we do need to speak out!

  2. This is really helpful and can relieve the worries and questions that many might have. I’m going to share the #!%$# out of this post over the next month because as you say, this is a neglected, possible strong voting group that need to be heard.

    1. Katie,
      Thank you!
      We do need to be heard and we do deserve the chance to vote!
      I hope that together, we can lead to a record turnout, and have our community even better represented than in 2018!

  3. This is a great view of disabled voting rights. Growing up when I did, I take some of these rights for granted. Disabled people definitely need more representation in politics.

    1. We do indeed!
      Oh I’ve been taking them for granted too – but I’ve been working more to understand disabled culture and disabled rights and this is the result! I’m glad to understand better but angry that it’s already been such a battle and that the battle is far from over!

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