Disabled voters face turnout gap

The number of Americans with physical or mental disabilities who turned out to vote surged in the 2018 midterm elections, though they still lagged far behind turnout among those who do not face disabilities, a new report finds.

That report, by the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, found turnout among those with disabilities rose to 49.3 percent in 2018, a nearly 20 percent increase over the 2014 midterms.

{mosads}But turnout among voters without a disability rose to 54 percent, leaving a 4.7-point turnout gap between those who face disabilities and those who do not. That represents as many as 14.7 million Americans with disabilities who did not cast a ballot last year.

“There is a persistent gap in voter turnout among people with disabilities,” said Doug Kruse, a Rutgers professor and co-author of the study. “People with disabilities are just as interested in elections, they’re just as engaged, they care just as much. So the lower voter turnout isn’t apathy or anything like that, it does seem to be due to other factors.”

The turnout gap is most pronounced among those who are not employed, the study found. Among disabled Americans who have jobs, voter turnout was virtually identical to that among those who do not have a disability; but among those without jobs, turnout lagged the overall population by 5 percentage points.

Lisa Schur, the study’s other author, said that may reflect the isolation that people with disabilities face — both socially and politically.

“People with disabilities are more likely to be socially isolated, live alone, be unemployed,” Schur said. “People with disabilities have largely been ignored by politicians. Being part of the [turnout] surge and having this big increase could send a signal to candidates and public officials that their vote counts.”

Elections officials across the country are developing ways to increase access for voters with disabilities. County and state elections administrators train poll workers in accommodating those with a disability, and disability advocates encourage voters to sign up to vote by mail.

“It’s a top priority for our state office, and I share that with a lot of our secretaries,” said Paul Pate, Iowa’s secretary of state and the president of the National Association of Secretaries of State. “There are several states that are very aggressive.”

In Iowa, Pate’s office asked all 99 counties to audit their precincts for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, required under the Help America Vote Act. They established curbside voting, so that those with disabilities could cast a ballot right from their cars at each of the state’s 1,700 precincts. And a dedicated outreach coordinator works with disability groups to spread information about voting rights.

Those programs won recognition from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission for Iowa’s efforts.

Still, Pate said, election administrators have to consider every step of their process in order to improve voter turnout — down to the websites that house that information.

“We tend to write websites for the average citizen, not those in the disability community. We need to keep that in mind as we’re setting these up,” he said. “It’s a long-distance race with no finish line.”

Nationally, the data show that physical accessibility remains a major hurdle. Up to 60 percent of polling places present some kind of physical barrier — a set of steps, a door without an automatic opener or some other obstacle. And the fact that election administration is so dispersed means that one county may have made different preparations than another, creating uneven access.

“You can have a state where one county is much more progressive on this issue than another county right next door,” Schur said. “A lot of public transportation doesn’t get to polling places.”

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