Posted: July 11, 2016
The constitutional right to vote—privately and independently— and whatever one’s political affiliation, is an invaluable cornerstone of civic participation in democracy. But in order for that right to truly matter, Americans with disabilities have to exercise it. A vote can’t be counted if it isn’t cast.
At a Capitol Hill policy briefing the National Council on Disability (NCD) convened in 2013, former Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT), author of the Help America Vote Act, detailed the scope of inaccessibility in the 2000 elections: “Twenty-one million people with disabilities did not vote,” Dodd said. “That made the disabled communities the single largest demographic group of nonvoters in the United States of America. At that time, only 16 percent of polling places were physically accessible. And not one, not one of the nearly 500 polling locations which the General Accounting Office (GAO) visited on Election Day in 2000, had special ballots adapted for blind voters.”
Things weren’t much better in 2008 when the GAO reported that only 27 percent of polling places had eliminated all barriers for voters with disabilities. More recently, NCD conducted an open-ended questionnaire of nearly 900 voters with disabilities after the November 2012 election suggested that not much had changed since GAO’s 2008 survey. Long lines and inaccessible voting materials make barriers to civic participation for voters with disabilities even more striking.
Sadly, more than 3.2 million Americans with disabilities felt “sidelined” on Election Day according to a 2012 USA Today article. That same year voter turnout was 11 percent lower among people with disabilities than with those who are not disabled. Perhaps the best way of shifting this perception is for the disability community to mobilize by increasing the number of registered disabled voters who cast their ballots on Election Day, and draw attention to the obstacles encountered in every instance.
Thankfully, efforts to reverse these trends appear to be gaining momentum.
The American Association of Persons with Disabilities has designated July 11-15 as National Disability Voter Registration Week “to increase the political power of disabled voters while also “engaging candidates and the media to recognize the disability community.”
The number of potential voters with disabilities are significant and, if successful, could easily influence the outcome of ballot initiatives and elected candidates. According to the United States Census Bureau, the population of Americans with disabilities is now one in five between the ages of 18 and 64, totaling 56.7 million or nearly 19 percent of our population. That is a massive constituency. One whose influence on election results should not be “sidelined.”
By registering to vote during National Disability Voter Registration Week this week, July 11-15, and encouraging others to do the same, the disability community can ensure that its voice, both collectively and as individuals, will be heard this election year and beyond. NCD encourages all people with disabilities—including senior citizens and veterans—to register to vote and to exercise their Constitutional right to vote in the elections in November for the candidates of their choice.