Intentional suppression of the right to vote is an overt travesty we abhor; as a democratic society we establish laws and regulations that facilitate, not impede, access. Passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act over a quarter century ago has open the election process to millions of Americans by requiring physical accommodations ranging from ramps to Braille ballots to wider voting booths and audio instructions. Over the years, focus has been on reaching the disabilities community with information about their voting rights and accessibility.
The great good news is that, in its first 26 years ADA has changed the lives of millions of Americans. More good news is that the changes implemented by federal mandate reap powerful benefits for all Americans. In some ways we are just beginning to realize the broader implications of ADA – the 2016 Election offers a challenge and an opportunity to build on ADA as a powerful tool for universal suffrage.
The first challenge is to assure that everyone who needs accommodation is aware of the range of possibilities and their legal right to expect access. Clearly, focus of ADA is on the disabilities community, a community that is itself expanding as Americans age and incur physical challenges that go with the territory.’
Which leads to the need to share information about the right to access with a broader public. This demands collaboration with agencies of every stripe that is in a position to share information about access with members of the public who do not identify with the disabilities community. There are countless Americans who do not identify as “disabled” for whom physical and mental challenges present unrecognized impediments to voting.
Basically, we all need to know more about the laws and procedures that ensure that every American is free and able to exercise the right to vote – and that all Americans are aware of the legal rights and accommodations accessible to every citizen for whom physical or mental access may present a barrier.
A basic step is to ensure that every eligible voter is registered. An earlier post describing the REV-UP initiative focused on voter registration as an Election 2016 priority. (https://marytreacy.wordpress.com/tag/rev-up/) Sponsored by the American Association of People with Disabilities the REV-UP campaign continues to hone in on public awareness and support materials – a great starting point for learning what’s happening this election season. http://www.aapd.com/our-focus/voting/
Voter registration not only opens the door but also offers the ideal opportunity to share the vast information resources about the voting rights of people with disabilities. It’s important to remember, too, that absentee voters who may not need information about access at their precinct, still need to have ready access to registration procedures.
The general public and agencies that serve people with access challenges need to know the law.
The legislation that codifies the voting rights of people with disabilities is the Help America Vote Act. (HAVA) Enacted in 2002 HAVA can seem as complex as it is fundamental. The straightforward basics are spelled out here: (http://www.eac.gov/about_the_eac/help_america_vote_act.aspx) For more comprehensive information on background and provisions of HAVA check Ballotpedia, the indispensable guide to all things voting related. Ballotpedia offers a good overview of the law and the process of implementation – a solid starting point for understanding the intent and the possibilities ensured by this federal legislation: https://ballotpedia.org/Help_America_Vote_Act_(HAVA)_of_2002
At the state level the right to vote for people with developmental disabilities is contained in Minnesota State Statute §204C.15, subd. 1. The basics are spelled out in detail in this publication from the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities: http://mn.gov/mnddc/news/newsitems/righttovote06.html
Municipalities have created their own systems for meeting the needs of voters who need assistance. As an example, Minneapolis residents who are visually impaired or hard of hearing are given this directive: For reasonable accommodations or alternative formats please contact the Neighborhood and Community Relations Department at 612-673-3737. People who are deaf or hard of hearing can use a relay service to call 311 at 612-673-3000. TTY users call 612-673-2157 or 612-673-2626.
The U.S Department of Justice offers a useful guide more specifically geared to the information needs of those charged with responsibility to implement HAVA: http://www.dspssolutions.org/resources/section-two-ada504-compliance-ocr-letters/us-department-of-justice-ada-links-documents. Written for compliance people, this may be more than mere mortals need to know about HAVA….
During the past election Access Press ran a very accessible guide on the topic of voting rights and accommodations for people with disabilities. It’s a great introduction, the only problem being that not everyone who serves the disabilities community reads Access Press or knows the story http://www.accesspress.org/blog/2014/10/10/voters-have-the-right-to-ask-for-assistance/?utm_source=Access%20Press%20Newsletter&utm_campaign=006cae818b-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_7c7ff77da6-006cae818b-418448557
In spite of legal requirements and the unstinting work of the disabilities community it remains to the vigilant to monitor the implementation of federal, state and municipal laws. There is concern among these groups that people with disabilities are “invisible,” thus not included or even identified in exit polling or election analyses. Another concern is that absentee voting solves all the voting problems for the disabilities community. The contention of some polling monitors is that, if people with disabilities were to vote at the same rate as non-disabled, there would have been 10 million more votes cast in the past election.
The fact is that the responsibility to know and share information about the voting rights of and accommodations for people with disabilities is “everybody’s business and nobody’s business.” The general public who are not immediately affected must begin to take a more active role in reaching a broader constituency who may not be fully aware of the comprehensive legislative requirements that accommodations be made for voters who face physical or mental barriers to voting.
As always, ignorance of the law is no excuse. In truth we as a society have not harnessed the human, political and communications resources at our disposable to inform people who need assistance to exercise their right to register and to vote. It is only through broader understanding of the law and the possibilities that we can share the basic facts about the registration/voting assistance to which every voter has a right. We also need to acknowledge – and counteract – the sad fact there are some Americans who think that their vote doesn’t really matter!
During this election season we need to ramp up the pitch, to share the word with and through mainstream agencies. Those who serve the public – which includes just about everyone — need to seize the opportunity to learn about HAVA and the accessibility of registration/voting resources. It will take the combined energy and attention not only of the disabilities community but also of institutions, e.g. neighborhood associations, health care providers, small businesses, libraries, the faith community, advocacy and good government groups, to assure thatchallenged voters know their rights and needs, that mandated accommodations are readily accessible to every potential voter, and that every voter knows how much his or her vote counts!
Election officials who take their positions seriously are committed to conforming to the law and meeting the needs of every voter. The missing link seems in many cases to be that people with disabilities, their families, care providers, and others in their lives don’t fully understand, and thus do not make fully clear, that access to the polls is within the reach of every eligible voter.
Fortunately, there are rich resources for people with disabilities and for election officials who want to better meet the requirements. Though my interest is as a concerned citizen, not an expert, my shallow dive into the possibilities came up with some, certainly not all, helpful resources that demand to be known and shared by more public and nonprofit agencies:
United States Election Assistance Commission http://www.eac.gov/voter_resources/resources_for_voters_with_disabilities.aspx
National Disabilities Rights Network http://www.ndrn.org/en/contact.html
Center for an Accessible Society http://www.accessiblesociety.org/topics/voting/
The Americans with Disabilities Act and Other Federal Laws Protecting the Rights of Voters with Disabilities https://www.ada.gov/ada_voting/ada_voting_ta.htm
Minnesota Council on Developmental Disabilities: http://mn.gov/mnddc/news/newsitems/righttovote06.html
National Federation for the Blind – Voting, Accessibility, and Law https://nfb.org/hava-legislation
National Association of the Deaf
Voting and Alzheimer’s Disease http://www.alzheimersblog.org/2014/11/03/