Over 35 million eligible voters in the U.S. have disabilities, and yet a study by the United States Government Accountability Office estimates that 83% of polling places surveyed have one or more potential impediments for voters with disabilities. I spoke to Michelle Bishop, Voter Access and Engagement Manager at the National Disability Rights Network, about the organization’s work to ensure the people with disabilities can exercise their rights and participate in the voting process. 

What does the National Disability Rights Network do?

The National Disability Rights Network is a national membership association that represents 57 organizations in total, including one in every state, each of the five territories, the District of Columbia, and one in the southwest which explicitly serves Native Americans. Our network consists of Protection and Advocacy (P&A) Systems and it was created by Congress. 

Our members do amazing and powerful work across many issues, including criminal and juvenile justice, access to healthcare, non-discrimination in employment, education, and more. Last year, we did some work for children with disabilities in the border detention camps. Because our organization has federal access authority, we have to be allowed in anywhere people with disabilities are receiving services. Now, we’re expanding into working with veterans with disabilities. 

Tell us a little about your work to address voting rights and voting access for Americans with disabilities.

We work with election officials to make sure that they are running elections that are accessible for people with disabilities. This can include surveying polling places to make sure that they are compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, purchasing accessible voting equipment, and providing training for poll workers. 

We also work directly with voters with disabilities to assist with voter registration and ensure that they know their rights as voters. This can include taking calls from voters on Election Day and organizing rides to the polls. 

Our members also try to keep an eye on what is happening in state legislatures to ensure that changes to voting don’t negatively impact voters with disabilities. 

How has COVID-19 impacted your work?

We’ve looked a lot at the accessibility of voting by mail. Traditionally, vote-by-mail systems haven’t been accessible for people with disabilities because most voting by mail happens with paper ballots. If you don’t have use of your hands, you cannot mark a ballot. We are encouraging states to enable voters to access ballots electronically as well. 

The drastic reduction of polling places can also have a deleterious effect on voters with disabilities. Moving a polling place a few miles away may not impact able-bodied voters but it can create real changes for folks with limited mobility.

Finally, we are working hard to make sure that in-person voting is still as safe as possible, especially for people with disabilities in long-term care facilities, nursing, and group homes. Programs where election officials come into facilities with ballots have largely been suspended in 2020 due to COVID-19. We’re also not sure what will happen to folks who are in hospitals, who are eligible to vote.

You have to be expecting lower voter participation for people with disabilities in 2020. Is that correct? 

Our voter participation does lag behind the general population by 4% to 6%. We’re trying to close that participation gap. 

Right now, we’re doing a lot of education and training via Zoom. I also do a lot of one-on-one consulting with our members, because voting is different in every state. We also have a public policy department that works on federal legislation, including submitting recent testimony to Congress to increase voting accessibility. 

There is so much to be done to increase accessibility of our voting systems. The U.S. Government Accountability Office has found that both polling places and polling booths need to be updated. For example, we need to ensure that polling booths are wheelchair accessible and headphones are available for blind and low-vision voters. We also need to think about the accessibility of parking, and ensure that there are ramps at polling places that have stairs.

Is there anything else you want to share?

We receive funding for our work through the Help America Vote Act, but it is restricted to certain programming. We’re seeking additional, flexible dollars to expand our programming, especially to do more direct messaging to people with disabilities.

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