Disabled Voters Can Flip the Senate

7 min readMay 24, 2018


Tens of millions of the most politically active voters in the nation are being physically prevented from exercising their Constitutional right to vote. This voting bloc arguably has the most at stake this coming November, and that are currently being physically barred from entering close to 2\3 of all polling places across the nation. With 35 million voters amongst their ranks, and 60 million members in their community — the outcome of the 2018 Midterm Elections in November rests on the backs of disabled Americans.

And while the barriers presented to obtaining election materials, completing registration, entering a polling place, and casting a ballot are physically insurmountable for millions of disabled voters, their lives and the livelihoods of their families and caregivers literally depends on their ability to cast a ballot.

As Sarah Blahovec, Disability Vote Organizer for the National Council on Independent Living, explains:

“There are still a massive amount of barriers to equal access for people with disabilities in polling places. In 2016, the GAO found that around 60 percent of polling places they studied had access barriers. Doug Kruse and Lisa Schur of Rutgers University have also done some excellent research on this, and found that in 2012, over 30 percent of people with disabilities experienced at least one difficulty in casting their ballot, as compared to only about 8.5 percent of people without disabilities. These barriers are not just physical barriers present at the polling place, but extend to those who work in the polling place, and are also pervasive in both registration and voter education.”

19% of people living with disabilities need assistance with errands and household responsibilities. 6% of people with disabilities are hard of hearing and 3% are blind. Millions more are presented with basic movility challenges. 51% of people living with disabilities can’t navigate stairs without assistance. 3.6 million people over the age of 15 use a wheelchair and over 11.6 million people use crutches, a walker, or other assistive mobility device. The average cost of a suitable wheelchair is just less than the average cost of a family vehicle.

4.6 million households include people living with disabilities receiving nutritional assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Budgetary austerity measures dictate that 620,000 households will have their food taken away from them within the first year of implementation. In less than 10 years, 2.6 million people will be denied food they receive through SNAP. Cuts to housing assistance and Section 8 will leave millions without shelter. And removal of personal assistant programs and funding eliminates the ability of millions of people living with disabilities to live on their own and function as independent citizens.

The need for food, care and support will not be eliminated with these cuts. They will translate into institutionalization, homelessness, and financial crisis for households and families left to foot the bill.

Voters with disabilities are not only aware of what is at stake, but they are aggressive in their response. Pew reports that voters with disabilities tend to be more engaged politically than the general population, and the light that has been shined on organizations such as Crip the Vote, ADAPT, and a number of disability rights organizations reaffirms their report.

Still, the voter turnout rate for people with disabilities is only around 56%. Why?

Getting voters with disabilities to the polls isn’t about motivation. The dramatically low rates of voters with disabilities exists because despite the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, an associate checklist for ADA accessible voting places, and the legal will to enforce electoral accessibility through the Help America Vote Act, obstacles are still being placed between voters with disabilities and the ballot box.

The difficulties for disabled voters starts long before election day even begins. Just finding accessible information on candidates, polling places, and key election issues can be impossible. Sarah Blahovec explains that these obstacles comes in 5 different categories: education, registration, getting into a polling place, accessing the ballot once inside a polling place, and disenfranchisement. She states:

“Despite the fact that Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act requires that entities that receive federal monies must be accessible, many election offices have inaccessible information. The websites may have barriers similar to the online voter registration sites, which could make it difficult for them to find out where their polling place is or find out any other information they need prior to election day. Additionally, sample ballots, which are important voter information documents, are usually inaccessible. Sample ballots allow voters to know what’s on their ballot prior to election day so they can research and make an informed vote. Unfortunately, these documents many times are scanned in as pictures, which are inaccessible to screen readers and therefore inaccessible to many blind and low-vision voters.”

The process of voter registration has also been designed and developed to exclude voters living with disabilities. In 2015, the ACLU reported that only one state in the nation used an online voter registration process that was accessible. Paper registration options are also difficult to access and presented in formats inaccessible to voters with disabilities including, for example, visual impairments and word processing divergences such as dyslexia.

Registering to vote can also be a challenge for voters with disabilities because of disenfranchisement efforts directed at people with disabilities, as well as other minority populations. For example, Pew Charitable Trusts reports, “Laws in 39 states and Washington, D.C., allow judges to strip voting rights from people with mental disorders ranging from schizophrenia to Down syndrome who are deemed “incapacitated” or “incompetent.” Some of those states use archaic language like “idiots” or “insane persons” in their statutes.”

Voters with disabilities not only face challenges presented to them directly, but they also absorb voter disenfranchisement efforts directed at other voting blocs. Voter ID laws that disproportionately affect people of color and poor voters also function to disenfranchise people living with disabilities. Many people with disabilities do not drive. As a result, they do not have the ID required in many states to access the ballot. People with disabilities also have less options, if any, when it comes to independent travel to DMV’s to obtain the required ID. Financial constraints and accessibility issues also make obtaining an ID difficult if not impossible for disabled voters trying to cast a ballot.

If voters with disabilities manage to overcome the obstacles presented when attempting to register to vote, they are still confronted with additional hurdles both outside and inside polling locations.

As describe previously, an estimated two-thirds of polling places are inaccessibly to voters with disabilities. Physically getting to a ballot box is often an impossibility for voters with disabilities. Lack of disabled parking, long lines, inaccessible pathways to the ballot box, and lack of resources such as comfortable waiting areas, water, and bathrooms all function to prevent voters with disabilities from exercising their Constitutional right to vote.

Once inside, another series of barriers arises. Blahovec explains, “Some voters may experience intimidation from poll workers who don’t believe they should vote independently. These last two issues may be even more severe for disabled folks of color, who already struggle with voter intimidation and voter ID disenfranchisement…. Inadequate poll worker training and knowledge of disabled voters is one of our largest barriers to equal voting access. Often, poll workers may not know how to use an accessible machine or ballot marking device. Some voters have even experienced polling places where the accessible machine is turned off in a corner, or they are discouraged by poll workers and are told to vote by hand when that isn’t a possible…. Poll workers also may have ideas about what disability looks like and may try to make a voter vote one way or another based on their perception of that voter’s need.”

The list of obstacles presented to disabled voters is endless, exhausting, and insurmountable. These obstacles also function to systemically deprive millions of voters living with disabilities of their Constitutional right to vote. There are organized efforts being made at the state and national levels to re-enfranchise the disabled voting bloc.

As previously mentioned, Crip The Vote, ADAPT, and the National Council on Independent Living are working tirelessly to remove obstacles presented to disabled voters before the 2018 Midterm Elections and beyond. The American Association on People with Disabilities (AAPD) has a campaign called REV UP: Register, Educate, Vote. They are working on state level solutions to disenfranchisement and welcome active support and participation. And a number of grassroots disability organizations and programs are popping up in states and cities all over the nation.

For individuals looking to get involved with the efforts to help disabled voters get to the polls, Blahovec suggests, “Find your local center for independent living, reach out to them, and ask if they’re working on election accessibility issues. CILs may already have a relationship with your county or even the elections office, and they often engage on local advocacy issues for their consumers. If they aren’t working on them, ask if you can meet with them to bring up your concerns and to work with them to approach your local elections office. The National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) is the member organization for CILs, and they have a Voting Rights Subcommittee which organizes on voting rights issues. Anybody is able to join NCIL and become a member of this subcommittee.”

Every American citizen should be able to exercise their right to vote, and under no circumstances should tens of millions of people be physically barred from casting a vote. The Midterm Elections present life and death decisions for all American citizens — but especially for people living with disabilities. People with disabilities have the Constitutional right to cast a ballot. Presenting physical barriers to this voting bloc is not only inexcusable, but it is also illegal. There are many ways individuals and groups can lend their support. There is not, however, much time left until November.

To learn more about Dr. GS Potter and the Strategic Institute for Intersectional Policy (SIIP), visit: http://strategycampsite.org/v2/




SIIP is dedicated to designing strategies to counter political obstacles faced by the most brutally targeted communities in the United States