EXPERT UPDATE: Voting -- A Fundamental Right
by Ilias N. Savakis
The fundamental right to vote is granted to all US citizens under the US Constitution. Justin Dart, considered by many to be the “father” of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), once said, “Vote as if your life depends on it – because it does.” What does this mean? The people who are elected to national, state and local office make up the laws of the state that we live in, as well as the laws that apply to the entire country. That includes making laws regarding federal and state programs that provide services and supports to people with disabilities to live full lives in the community.
However, a gap still remains between voters with disabilities who cast their vote on election day compared to people without disabilities. A study published by Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations reveals that although 16 million people with disabilities reported voting in the November 2016 General Election, the voter turnout of people with disabilities was 6% lower than that of people without disabilities. If people with disabilities voted at the same rate as people without disabilities, there would be an estimated 2.2 million more voters nationally.
So why aren’t people with disabilities voting at the same rate as people without disabilities?
Accessibility is one issue. A 2012 study by Rutgers University, funded by the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), indicated that 30% of people with disabilities in the United States reported difficulty in voting compared to only 8% of people without disabilities in the United States. The most common problems reported were difficulty with reading or seeing the ballot (12%) and understanding how to vote or use voting equipment (10%). The US Government Accountability Office observed polling place accessibility at 178 polling places during the 2016 election. One hundred seven of the 178 polling places had one or more issues with accessibility for people with disabilities. The US Government Accountability Office fully examined the voting stations inside 137 polling places. Eighty-nine of the 137 polling places had an accessible voting system that risked the privacy and independence of a person with a disability.
Another issue is a lack of training for election officials, poll workers and people with disabilities about the right to vote for people with disabilities. According to the US Department of Justice (DOJ), Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section, people with disabilities have often been prevented from voting because of assumptions made by election officials and poll workers about their capabilities to vote. This is particularly true for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, as well as people with traumatic brain injuries. The DOJ states that this often happens because poll workers are volunteers, they usually have many responsibilities, they often do not know about all of the federal and state laws that protect people with disabilities in the voting process and they do not always get specific training on the issues that voters with disabilities experience.
What protections are in place for voters with disabilities?
There are several laws that protect people with disabilities and voting. Each law serves a different purpose. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), one of the oldest pieces of legislation enacted to protect voters with disabilities, requires that election officials allow a voter with a disability to receive assistance from a person of the voter’s choosing, including a family member or a poll worker, when casting their vote. A voter with a disability is not required to have someone assist them at the polls – it is their choice.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), enacted in 1990 and revised in 2010, provides protections to people with disabilities throughout all aspects of life, including voting. Title II of the ADA requires state and local governments to assure that people with disabilities have a full and equal opportunity to vote as people without disabilities do.
The Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) requires jurisdictions responsible for conducting federal elections (i.e. all US states) to provide at least one accessible voting system for people with disabilities at each polling place. The accessible voting system must allow for the same privacy and independence that voters without disabilities receive. A fully accessible voting system should include large displays, magnifiers, lowered machines for people who use wheelchairs and auxiliary aids that aid people with visual and hearing impairments. However, many voters across the country report that these features aren’t always available to them at their polling place – including tables that are too high and aren’t adjustable, as well as aging voting machines malfunctioning and not in working condition. The HAVA also provides funding to organizations, including state Protection and Advocacy Organizations such as the Georgia Advocacy Office (GAO), to help ensure that people with disabilities retain their right to vote.
States often have varying policies in place that can further affect a person’s right to vote, such as the right of a person with a disability under a guardianship. A common misconception by both poll workers and supporters of people with disabilities in Georgia is that a person’s right to vote is removed if they have a guardian. However, the right to vote is only removed if it is specifically mentioned in the guardianship order. As a result, a person with a disability can register to vote and cast a ballot for the candidate of their choice without the permission of a guardian.
What can you do if your right to vote is obstructed?
If you believe that your right to vote is being interfered with, either because of issues that you are experiencing with registering to vote or casting your vote, there are resources available to help ensure that your voice is heard and your vote counts.
Make Your Voice Heard!
The Georgia Advocacy Office (GAO), the Protection and Advocacy System for people with disabilities in Georgia, operates a voter hotline, weekdays from 9 AM to 5 PM and from 7 AM – 7 PM on primary and general election days. The GAO can be reached at (404) 885-1234 or (800) 537-2329.
The Elections Division of Georgia’s Secretary of State’s Office can also assist with any issues that arise when registering to vote or on primary and general election days. The office can be reached at (404) 656-2871 or (844) 753-2871.
Voters can also contact the State of Georgia’s Office of the Attorney General to file a voter complaint at (404) 656-3300.
Ilias N. Savakis is an Advocate and Program Coordinator for both the Protection and Advocacy for Voting Access (PAVA) and the Protection and Advocacy for Traumatic Brain Injuries (PATBI) programs.
Savakis has become nationally recognized for his work with voting rights, working to assure that people with disabilities in Georgia exercise their right to vote.
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