By Alejandro JSM Chavez
It’s hoped that there will be a large turnout for the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 8. Efforts have been put in place to make voting more accessible. Active California registered voters should have received a vote-by-mail ballot and vote centers are open now for those who want to vote early.
However, throughout the country, there are still obstacles that prevent people from voting that have included gerrymandered districts decreasing voting power for people of color and documented reports of partisan poll workers who have interfered with voting.
What hasn’t been as well reported are the large numbers of disabled voters and the numbers of limited English speakers who don’t receive voter assistance.
“This always concerns us that in particular people with disabilities, and people with limited proficiency in English are going to be targets of poll watchers who question their eligibility to vote, despite the fact that they are citizens and they are eligible to vote and they’re on the voter rolls when they show up to vote on Election Day, said Michelle Bishop, Voter access and Engagement Manager at the National Disability Rights Network in Washington D.C.
Bishop spoke at a press briefing with Ethnic Media Services on threats to the electoral process. She said that the National Disability Rights Network is aware of unfair treatment to those who need assistance to vote. Their presence and legitimacy may be questioned when others aren’t.
“We’ve seen this happen often to people with disabilities and people with limited proficiency in English, especially if they brought someone with them, to assist them in accessing the ballot. There start to be questions from most poll watchers when nothing inappropriate is going on,” said Bishop.
[Since] the 2016 presidential election, Bishop noted, there have been increased calls for poll watchers — particularly partisan poll watchers, and some calls for them to be more aggressive, and disruptive at polling places.
“Precinct workers sometimes bar them from having assistance if they’re blind or can’t walk, even though having help is a legal right. Overall, some 6% of disabled voters – as many as 4-5 million people – find voting barriers impossible to surmount,” she said.
One in four Americans are people with disabilities, a much larger community than is realized. The numbers of disabled votes represent a large number of citizens and cannot be discounted.
“There are about 40 million eligible voters with disabilities in the United States. That’s 1/6 of the total electorate at the United States,” explained Bishop. “We do have data that shows that this is an incredibly diverse intersectional community people with disabilities are over represented among racial minority communities that include the LGBTQIA plus community.”
“People with disabilities, according to the census, are actually about 20% of the entire entire US population, about one in five Americans. But if we actually look at data that we have from the CDC, and Pew Research Center, they put that number more like 25%,” said Bishop.
They may be viewed as unimportant or powerless. People who are low income people with disabilities are underemployed and unemployed at an astonishing rate.
Bishop said there is data to show from Pew Research Center, that people with disabilities actually report that elections really matter and that they’re paying attention to the outcome of elections at a higher rate than their non disabled peers but they in many cases, stay away from the polls if they believe they won’t have assistance or receive poor treatment.
The turnout for voters with disabilities has consistently lagged 6% behind non-disabled voters across election cycles – Representing anywhere from 3 to 5 million individual voters.
While the knee jerk response to their situation might be to instruct them to get assistance at home or to vote by mail – this is more evidence of the lack of understanding of the challenges that those with disabilities face.
“Mailing someone a piece of paper and expecting them to be able to mark it with a pen is something that someone who’s blind, someone who doesn’t have use of their hands is never going to be able to do.” said Bishop.
“So that gap and turnout isn’t due to a lack of interest in elections. It’s not apathy. It’s more that there are stable barriers over time that have truly prevented our participation. The majority of polling places in the United States for traditional in person voting are inaccessible. They’re out of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
But despite attempts to limit the right to voter assistance for voters, it is a federally protected, right and everyone should be aware of what they have a right to receive.
“The Voting Rights Act of 1965 says that if you’re a person with a disability or a person with limited proficiency in English, you have the right to bring anyone you want with you, to assist you to vote or to help you cast your vote by mail ballot, maintains Bishop.
“The only limitation is that it can’t be your employer and it can’t be your union representative. This doesn’t have to be someone who’s also voting. They don’t have to be a citizen. They don’t have to be over the age of 18. It can be whoever you trust, to help you mark your ballot the way you intend or help you get your ballot back by the deadline if you’re voting by mail.
“It’s also for people with disabilities who live in long term care facilities to receive help. People who live in nursing homes and institutions for whom voting by mail is often the only way they are able to access the ballot,” she said.
Diana Martinez contributed to this story