NCD Letter to Committee on House Administration regarding Election Assistance Commission

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February 6, 2017

Representative Gregg Harper
Chairman
Committee on House Administration
1309 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

Representative Robert Brady
Ranking Member
Committee on House Administration
1307 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Chairman Harper and Ranking Member Brady:

I write on behalf of the National Council on Disability (NCD), an independent federal agency, to express our concern with potential unintended consequences of H.R. 634, the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) Termination Act of 2017. Dismantling the EAC without designating another entity that can work to create equal access and compile best practices could potentially lead to greater disenfranchisement for voters with disabilities.

NCD’s mission is to advise Congress and the President on federal policies advancing the goals of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) – equality of opportunity, economic self-sufficiency, independent living, and full participation. When it comes to civic participation, there isn’t much more fundamental to advancing equality of opportunity and full participation than the act of voting privately and independently. Accordingly, NCD has been very focused on the voting experiences of people with disabilities over the years.

In 2013, NCD held a congressional forum titled, “The Help America Vote Act Ten Years Later: Has the Law Accomplished Its Aim?” which received in-person testimony from former Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT), author of the Help America Vote Act; the Government Accountability Office regarding their national field studies of polling place accessibility; a number of people with a variety of disabilities; and written responses from the EAC to ten questions NCD posed to the commission. We have included a copy of the EAC’s answers with this letter.

In GAO’s reports on the accessibility of polling places in the 2000 and 2008 elections, a staggering number of polling places were found to remain inaccessible to people with disabilities, disenfranchising scores of disabled people who were prevented from casting a private, independent ballot. In 2000, GAO estimated that only 16 percent of polling places in the contiguous United States were without impediments from the parking area to the voting room – meaning 84 percent of polling places had some form of impediment to voters with disabilities. In 2008, two elections later, 27.3 percent were estimated to be without impediments – still nearly 73 percent with impediments. GAO conducted another field study of the accessibility of the 2016 general election and the results of that study are pending release.

Later in 2013, NCD hosted a voting roundtable to benefit the commissioners of the President’s Commission on Election Administration (several of whom were present), and hosted representatives from several dozen disability advocacy organizations engaged on voting accessibility. Each of these representatives relayed data from their state and local chapters and affiliates about Election Day experiences that showcased the persistent need for not only enforcement but updated standards for state election officials to reference. 

The most recent figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010 suggest that the population of Americans with disabilities constitutes at least 1 in 5 between the ages of 18 and 64, totaling 56.7 million or 19 percent of our population. Factor in the number of Americans who are aging – often into disability – and of the 17 percent of voting-age Americans who are 65 years or older, at least 36 percent identify as disabled. 

NCD regularly receives input from stakeholders requesting increased specificity in civil rights requirements. The absence of specificity frequently allows for civil rights to be violated, however unintentionally. The EAC’s work with the Voluntary Voting System Guidelines (VVSG), testing and certification, and pilot programs offers states confidence in meeting requirements under HAVA and communicates to people with disabilities the importance of their votes.

As technology moves forward rapidly – including technological advances to voting machines – it is important that states have confidence in their purchases and certifications of voting machines and that people with disabilities have equal opportunity to cast an independent and private vote alongside their nondisabled peers.

Please carefully consider all the responsibilities that HAVA made on the EAC in benefit of the voting rights of people with disabilities. Consider the benefit that the EAC has had to this end, and please ensure the continuity and support of these efforts to the greatest extent possible for the benefit of our democracy.

As a blind American who deeply values my right to vote, and on behalf of a constituency of over 57 million Americans with a variety of disabilities, I urge you to refer to the EAC’s responses to NCD’s questions from 2013 as a snapshot of the EAC’s work to support the requirement of a private, independent vote for all Americans, and work to ensure you not only do no harm in today’s markup, but that you take affirmative steps to support voting rights of people with disabilities across the nation.

Respectfully,

Clyde Terry
Chair