The last presidential campaign saw Al Gore and George W. Bush squaring off in one of the closest elections in United States history. It is estimated that 52 to 53 percent of the voting age population cast ballots in the election of 2000, according to Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate (Strope 2000). For a presidential election, voter turnout was relatively high especially considering our country currently experiences strong prosperity. While turnout among all eligible voters was good, turnout for the disabled community continued to disappoint. Even with the large number of individuals with disabilities in this country, the voting rate for these people continues to fall short of the general population.
This past election saw a number of disabled advocacy organizations conducting get-out-the-vote campaigns to boost turnout by disabled voters. Despite these increased efforts, the voting rates for individuals with disabilities continued to lag behind the overall voting rate. What are the contributing factors keeping disabled individuals from exercising their constitutionally protected right to vote? Even with efforts made by the government and private interest groups, why are voting rates for this disabled consistently lower than the general population? What are the possible solutions to raise voter turnout within the disabled community?
Currently, there are approximately 54 million Americans with disabilities. They represent roughly one-fifth of the total population, a very substantial portion of the population. These people are not participating in our democratic processes. A study conducted by Rutgers University and the University of Arkansas on the 1998 election indicated that individuals with disabilities are 20 percent less likely than non-disabled people to vote and 10 percent less likely to even register (Kruse et al, 1999). The census reports a voter registration gap of 16 percent between individuals with disabilities and the remainder of the voting age population. There is an alarming gap in the participation rates between the disabled and non-disabled populations. This is not a new trend by any means, there were approximately 23.5 million individuals with disabilities who did not vote in the 1996 presidential election (National Organization on Disability, 2000).
Physical Barriers to Voting
Through legislation, the government has tried to increase voting rates for individuals with disabilities. In 1993, the National Voter Registration Act (more commonly known as the Motor Voter Law) was signed into law, requiring disability service providers to offer voter registration to their clients. Unfortunately, the participation by service providers has not met expectations, with only a small fraction complying with the law (Kruse et al, 1999). Even with government action, the disabled are not being given the opportunity the rest of the population enjoys, the means necessary to register to vote. They depend on others, service providers, to provide their right to vote. This arrangement is fundamentally unfair to the disabled. If a disabled individual's service provider does not comply with the statute, that individual's constitutionally protected right to vote is denied. Action needs to be taken to ensure the disabled receive the same opportunity to register and vote enjoyed by every other citizen. The government needs to monitor agencies and providers to ensure voter registration is offered, and impose penalties on agencies who fail to meet the requirement. Registration is a necessary first step to increase voting by the disabled, but other obstacles must also be eliminated.
Once an individual with a disability is registered and eligible to vote, he/she faces a new set of challenges that need to be solved. According to a report by the Federal Election Commission, there are in excess of 20,000 polling sites, out of approximately 152,000, that lack the minimal requirements for access by the disabled. Disabled individuals cannot even access locations established for voting. Inaccessibility can take many forms, ranging from a location without an elevator, a lack of ramps, or doors capable of accommodating wheelchairs. There may also be inaccessible parking, no available public transit, inaccessible voting booths, no Braille ballot for the blind, no facilities for private voting, and a lack of assistance for those who require it (Center for an Accessible Society, 2000). Additionally, a joint survey between Rutgers University and the University of Arkansas reported that 27 percent of non-voting individuals with disabilities expect access problems with attempting to vote. Almost one-third of non-voters assume difficulty is associated with voting (Kruse et al, 1999). It is easy to see why many individuals with disabilities do not vote; they decide to forgo voting because of the obstacles involved. The lack of basic facilities and equipment to allow individuals with disabilities to vote in the same manner as the rest of the public is a denial of a basic constitutional right.
The 14th amendment of the Constitution states that "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States . . . without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." By using polling locations that cannot accommodate the needs of disabled individuals, they are being denied equal protection under the law. Each person age 18 or older is given the right to vote by the Constitution. Polling locations lacking accessibility means not everyone is given an equal opportunity to vote. Able bodied individuals are, in effect, given preferential treatment in voting. The purpose of the 14th amendment was to eliminate government action giving preferential treatment of one group over another. The equal protection clause was the justification for ending racial discrimination during the 1960s. For example, the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education found that segregated schools did not provide equal education and ordered integration. The same reasoning needs to be applied to remedy the discrimination experienced by individuals with disabilities as they attempt to exercise their right to vote. All polling locations need to be accessible and accommodate the disabled, with uniform standards that guarantee equal protection.
These polling locations are also in violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. Titles 2 and 3 of this law contain provisions addressing the services provided by state and local governments, public accommodations, and specifications of commercial facilities. Many polling locations are in violation of Title 3, because they do not meet the requirements outlined within the ADA. For example, the polls lack doors of proper width, proper parking and transit accommodations, ramps and elevators for building access, and proper voting equipment to accommodate disabilities. The ADA was created to ensure equal access to all general use facilities for disabled individuals. The spirit of the law is to make society as accessible as possible, to create a level playing field so individuals with disabilities can become fully integrated. Because we live in a democratic society, voting is an essential action. If individuals are denied their right to vote they will never become full members of society because they lack a voice in deciding how the society operates. Buildings not adhering to the ADA create a stigma among those in the disabled community. The lack of access makes the disabled feel unwanted, as if they are being treated as second class citizens. They can live here but are not allowed to participate and become equal members in society. If ADA requirements were enforced at polling locations, it would help remove this stigma. It would be a strong first step in getting more individuals with disabilities to the polls and participating in the democratic process.
The primary factor in low participation in voting by individuals with disabilities is lack of proper access. According to a survey conducted by Rutgers University, people with disabilities were more likely to report difficulty in voting. The survey broke respondents into two groups, those voting since 1988, and those not voting since 1988. Of those voting since 1988, 8.2% said they experienced difficulty in voting, and of those not voting since 1988, 27.5% said they would expect difficulty in voting. The rates among non-disabled respondents was 1.7% and 3.6% respectively (Kruse et al, 1999). This survey shows the perception of the disabled when it comes to voting, one out of 12 report difficulty voting and those who have not voted choose not to because they perceive difficulty. The lack of access to polling locations is a significant reason the disabled do not vote.
A solution to these access problems is to have the federal government appropriate funds for county election boards to update their voting equipment and polling locations. The funds would help offset costs of new voting machines, which counties would have a difficult time affording on their own.
Beyond Physical Barriers
Not only do we as a society need to guarantee equal access to allow everyone to vote, we also need to reach out to voters with disabilities and make them feel their issues are important. The disabled need to be recognized as a constituency. This past presidential election has shown positive movement in that direction. Both candidates outlined proposals to assist individuals with disabilities.* However, when the election was winding down, both parties did not live up to their promises of including the disabled. During the last few days of the campaign, both parties undertook massive phone campaigns to turn out last minute voters. Neither the Gore or Bush campaigns used Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf (TDD) to reach hearing impaired voters (Williams, 2000). For all their talk of reaching out to voters with disabilities, both campaigns did little to accommodate potentially important voters with disabilities , who could have altered the outcome of the election. In Florida alone, there are an estimated one million individuals with disabilities. If either candidate had been able to turn out these voters, the outcome of the election could have been changed (Williams, 2000). The potential impact on the outcome of the election should not be underestimated. If individuals with disabilities voted at the same rate as the general population, there could have been an additional 4.6 million voters in the 1998 elections, increasing overall turnout by 2.5% (Kruse et al, 1999). Since the 2000 election was decided by only two hundred thousand votes, if either candidate captured the disabled vote, they could have provided a much larger, more convincing victory.
By not having access to the polls and effective representation, the disabled are being denied their constitutionally protected right to vote. They are also being denied equal protection guaranteed by the 14th amendment. If the disabled are to become fully accepted into society, they need to be treated in the same manner as everyone else. They need to have the same opportunity to vote, the same chance the rest of us take for granted. Currently, the disabled do not participate because they are treated as second class citizens. To remedy this, the government would have to spend a relatively small amount to update voting equipment and locations. In addition, our candidates and representatives must be aware of the needs of and issues affecting individuals with disabilities. In the grand scheme of all the functions performed by our government, the small amount of money needed provides a large segment of the population a right that cannot be measured in dollars. The right to vote has a deeper value. Throughout history many groups have fought for the right to vote, arguing it was necessary for their survival. Now, let us take the necessary steps to provide a severely overlooked group this same right.
Did you experience any barriers to voting in the 2000 Presidential Election? If so, please let us know by e-mailing us at email@example.com
* Please see our other editorial The Candidate Comparison.
The Center for an Accessible Society (2000). "Disabled Americans Being Barred from Voting." Retrieved December 28, 2000 on the World Wide Web: http://www.accessiblesociety.org/bkgd/pollaccess.htm This link is no longer available.
Kruse, D.; Schriner, K.; Schur, L.; Shields, T. (1999). Empowerment Through Civic Participation: A Study of the Political Behavior of People With Disabilities, Report to the Disability Research Consortium Bureau of Economic Research, Rutgers University and the New Jersey Developmental Disabilities Council. Rutgers University and the University of Arkansas.
National Organization on Disability (2000). People With Disabilities are the Sleeping Giant of American Politics. Retrieved December 28, 2000 on the World Wide Web: http://www.nod.org/vote2000/lwvarticle.html.
Strope, L. (2000, November 8). Voters Turn Out to Make Vote Count. Associated Press, Retrieved on December 28, 2000 on the World Wide Web at: http://www.speakout.com
Williams, J. (2000, November 15). How the Disabled Lost Out in Election 2000. Businessweek Online. Retrieved on December 28, 2000 on the World Wide Web: http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/nov2000/nf20001115_559.htm.
Legislation and the Law
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