Suffrage for Americans with disabilities

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According to Abilities United, over 16% of Americans are considered to have either a physical, developmental, or learning disability.[1] The barriers that 33.7 million persons with disabilities face within the American electoral process include access to polling information, physical access to polls, current and future laws that deal with the topic, and the moral implications regarding the varying levels of both physical and cognitive disabilities and the act of voting.[2]

Denotation and categorization[edit]

The term "disability" has a wide range of connotations and associations. Webster's Dictionary defines it as:

A condition (such as an illness or injury) that damages or limits a person's physical or mental abilities.[3]

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as:

A physical or mental condition that limits a person's movements, senses, or activities.[4]

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission further explores the characterization of "disability" within its Guidance outlines. The Commission outlines three ways in which an individual can demonstrate their disability:[5]

  1. "A person may be disabled if he or she has a physical or mental condition that substantially limits a major life activity (such as walking, talking, seeing, hearing, or learning)."
  2. "A person may be disabled if he or she has a history of a disability (such as cancer that is in remission)."
  3. "A person may be disabled if he is believed to have a physical or mental impairment that is not transitory (lasting or expected to last six months or less) and minor (even if he does not have such an impairment)."

Originally signed into law in 1990 and since amended in 2004, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) set a significant precedent in categorizing disability. IDEA outlined 13 distinct categories of disabilities. Though the categories apply under law to individuals between the ages of 3 and 21, they have served as one of the few examples of the federalization of disability categorizations. They include:[6]

  1. Autism
  2. Deaf-Blindness
  3. Deafness
  4. Emotional Disturbance
  5. Hearing Impairment
  6. Intellectual Disability
  7. Multiple Disabilities
  8. Orthopedic Impairment
  9. Other Health Impairment
  10. Specific Learning Disability
  11. Speech or Language Impairment
  12. Traumatic Brain Injury
  13. Visual Impairment (Including Blindness)

Political engagement[edit]

Multiple sources report that persons with disabilities comprise one of the most disenfranchised groups within American society.[7] As a result, Americans with both physical and cognitive disabilities are amongst the least politically engaged members of the electorate. For example, during the 2012 election cycle, 11% fewer persons with disabilities turned out to vote than their nondisabled counterparts.[7] According to a 2013 report penned by Rutgers University professor Lisa Schur, as many as three million more citizens with disabilities would have turned out to vote had they voted at the same rate as non-disabled citizens.[1]

Accessibility to polls[edit]

Voter identification laws greatly impact accessibility to polls for persons with disabilities. As the largest population of citizens without drivers licenses, persons with both physical and cognitive disabilities face the obstacle of strict identification laws at polling places within some states.[1] Within stricter states, many disabled persons who do not have physical identification cards are required to submit absentee ballots.[8] The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) provides a web page with ID requirements for voting in each state, and those with the strictest requirements often present the largest challenges to disabled Americans.[9]

  Strict photo ID (9 states)
  Photo ID (non-Strict) (8 states)
  Strict non-photo ID required (3 states)
  Non-photo ID required (non strict) (13 states)
  No ID required to vote at ballot box (17 states)

A leading theory that attempts to explain the lack of political engagement within disabled communities deals primarily with access to polling places. In fact, many polling places are considered to be nearly entirely inaccessible to persons with disabilities.[2] To this end, within the past several years, the Federal Election Commission has reported that more than 20,000 polling places across the nation are not fully accessible for disabled individuals, and in 1999, the New York Attorney General fewer than 10% of upstate polling facilities were fully compliant with state and federal laws.[2]

The failure to comply with state and federal laws can manifest itself in many ways, but it typically results in a lack of functional wheelchair ramps, sparse placement of handicapped entrance signs, and generally inaccessible physical voting booths.[7] As a result, resources and physical aides such as "Help America Vote Act"-mandated voting machines are utilized for federal elections and aim to assist persons with disabilities.[1]

One of the most popularly utilized methods of combatting these problems in recent years has manifested itself in the utilization of electronic voting machines. Because "punch card" and "lever" voting machines are often inaccessible to many parts of the disabled community, adaptive technology has been applied to many traditional devices, and many different kinds of accessible machines have been developed. Legislation like the Help America Vote Act has required that at least one accessible machine be available at each polling place.[10]

This voter with a manual dexterity disability is making choices on a touchscreen with a head dauber. This is an example of adaptive technology in use.

Contemporary laws protecting suffrage for people with disabilities[edit]

Both state and federal legislatures have enacted thousands of pages of legislation regarding the rights of Americans with disabilities. Several major "landmark" pieces of legislation have served as models.

Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act[edit]

  1. Passed into law in 1984, the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act requires polling places to ensure accessibility for all disabled persons during federal elections.[11]
Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
Great Seal of the United States
Other short titlesADA
Long titleAn act to establish a clear and comprehensive prohibition of discrimination on the basis of disability
Acronyms (colloquial)ADA
Enacted bythe 101st United States Congress
EffectiveJuly 26, 1990
Legislative history

Americans with Disabilities Act[edit]

Passed into law in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (or "ADA") is widely considered to be the first major attempt to define the rights of disabled Americans at a federal level. Signed into law by President George H. W. Bush, the act prohibits discrimination based on disability. Though the ADA is wide-ranging in scope, it has had many lasting effects on the suffrage of disabled Americans. Some of the most prominent changes that resulted from the legislation included calls for accessibility within polling stations. This effort to increase accessibility has led to the establishment of mandatory accessible parking, passenger drop off areas, and building entrances at polling places.[12]

Help America Vote Act[edit]

Passed into law in 2002, the Help America Vote Act ("HAVA") creates "mandatory minimum standards for states to follow in several key areas of election administration."[13] Passing both federal legislatures with bipartisan support, the Act authorized the Secretary of Health and Human Services to make polling places accessible to persons with disabilities. The legislation has a particularly sharp focus on individuals affected by visual impairments, and requires each polling station to have to at least one disability-accessible voting machine per federal election.[13] The Act has three main goals:[13]

  1. Replace punch-card and lever based voting systems
  2. Establish the Election Assistance Commission in order to assist with the administration of federal elections
  3. Establish minimum federal election standards

Critics of the Act claim that its reach should be expanded to more than solely federal elections. While states receive funding for disability-accessible touchscreen electronic voting machines under HAVA, municipalities such as cities and towns do not directly receive funding. As a result, critics claim that the machines are not evenly distributed.[14]

National Voter Registration Act[edit]

Passed into law in 1993, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 attempted to increase the historically low registration rates of minorities and persons with disabilities by requiring both federal and state agencies to assist in voter registration procedures.[11]

Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act[edit]

Passed into law in 1980, the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act protects the rights of persons in jails, publicly operated nursing homes, and institutions for people with psychiatric or developmental disabilities.[11]

Voting Rights Act[edit]

Originally passed into law in 1965 to combat racial discrimination at polling places, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 has recently supported advances of disabled suffrage. Section 208 of the Act allows citizens affected by "blindness, disability, or the inability to read or write" to assign an individual to help cast votes within a ballot box.[15] Restrictions on the assignment of said individual include the voter's employer or agent of their union.[15]

Contemporary laws restricting suffrage for people with disabilities[edit]

In some states, people who are deemed mentally incompetent are not allowed to vote.[16][17] In the conservatorship process, people can lose their right to vote.[18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Bellware, Kim (4 November 2014). "It's 2014, But It's Still Difficult For People With Disabilities To Vote". HuffPost.
  2. ^ a b c "People with Disabilities and Voting". The Center for an Accessible Society. Retrieved 2015-10-28.
  3. ^ "Disability, Webster".
  4. ^ "Oxford, Disability".
  5. ^ "Disability Discrimination". US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
  6. ^ "Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)" (PDF).
  7. ^ a b c Korte, Gregory (10 August 2012). "Study shows voters with disabilities face access barriers". Retrieved 2015-10-28.
  8. ^ Badger, Emily (29 October 2014). "This is what it's like to try to get a Voter ID when you're disabled, poor or don't drive". The Washington Post.
  9. ^ "Voter ID: State Requirements". National Conference of State Legislatures. October 21, 2014.
  10. ^ "Accessibility and Auditability in Electronic Voting". Electronic Frontier Foundation. 17 May 2004.
  11. ^ a b c "A Guide to Disability Rights Laws". Americans with Disabilities Act. United States Department of Justice. July 2009.
  12. ^ "ADA Checklist for Polling Places". Americans with Disabilities Act. United States Department of Justice.
  13. ^ a b c "Help America Vote Act". U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
  14. ^ Armstrong, Michael (29 October 2015). "Blind man files rights complaint". Homer News.
  15. ^ a b "Statutes Enforced By The Voting Section". United States Department of Justice.
  16. ^ Leonard, Kimberly (17 October 2012). "Keeping the 'Mentally Incompetent' From Voting". The Atlantic. Retrieved 29 May 2018.
  17. ^ Pan, Deanna (5 November 2012). "Protecting the Voting Rights Of People With Mental Disabilities". Mother Jones. Retrieved 16 July 2018.
  18. ^ Vasilogambros, Matt (21 March 2018). "Thousands Lose Right To Vote Under 'Incompetence' Laws". HuffPost. Retrieved 29 May 2018.