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Last month we published the Ruderman White Paper on Voting Accessibility for People with Disabilities. I co-authored it with Norman Ornstein after an intensive period of qualitative research where we interviewed ten remarkable people who have devoted their lives, in one way or another, to ensuring the democratic process remains alive. In less dramatic terms I spent a lot of time reading and talking to devoted people who were professionally interested in making sure every eligible citizen has access to the democratic system and a say in it through the power of their vote. Unsurprisingly our findings showed that people with disabilities face persistent obstacles when it comes to voting. They basically are less likely to vote than their demographic counterparts without disabilities due to these obstacles.
I’ve now had multiple conversations on this topic—most recently with Fox News’ Gregg Jarrett—and every time the person I speak with is understandably upset by this glaring disparity. I mean we’re talking about a basic civil right of 20% of our nation being violated, what’s not to be upset about? And inevitably we get to the topic of absentee ballots. The question goes something like: if people with disabilities have such issues at the polls, why can’t they just vote absentee? Well, the answer is: that question is beside the point.
Apologies for my bluntness, but it’s really important to be clear on this. Some people with disabilities can and do choose to use absentee ballots. Some greatly prefer them even, just like some people without disabilities do. But the operative word here is “choose.” It’s great to have absentee ballots as an option, but research on the matter shows that most people with disabilities prefer to vote in person (that is, in the states that don’t do mail-in only voting for everyone). This is no different from findings about people without disabilities. There is a certain desire to publicly participate in this private act and get acknowledged with that “I voted” sticker. (Full disclosure: my finacee and I went to vote early last week and the first thing she said after we met up again after casting our ballots was: “I’m really glad they still give out the sticker even on early voting.”)
Whatever your personal feelings on in-person voting, the bigger problem with the absentee ballot question is that it implies that if people with disabilities didn’t have to physically go to the ballot, the problem would be solved. But that is expecting one set of people to engage in the electoral process in one way and another set in another way. In other words, it’s advocating for a segregated system. And that is neither what democracy nor what equality is about.
You may say, as many do, “but their vote gets counted the same, so why does it matter if they cast it differently?” With this question it helps to substitute “people with disabilities” as a group of people with any other marginalized group. If we asked the same question about women: why can’t women just vote absentee while men vote in person, the inequality may become more obvious. The answer is simply that in some cases the process (how you vote) matters as much as the outcome (your vote being counted). There is a reason we no longer think it’s okay to designate one water fountain for black people and another one for white even though water comes out of both.
And to be fair, our laws recognize that segregation in our electoral process is not okay. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) mandates that each polling station have an accessible voting machine available to citizens with disabilities who choose to exercise their right to cast a private and independent ballot at the polling station with the rest of their community. (It’s worth noting that many people without disabilities also choose to use these machines in places where they are widely available.) The problem isn’t the law, it’s that the law is not always enforced due to many complicated factors. But it would be nice if more people were actually aware that absentee ballots are not a solution to accessibility problems.
Most of all, they are not a solution because they are not accessible. There is an often-cited figure that gets pulled out from our White Paper. And that is the study which showed that if people with disabilities voted in 2012 at the same rates as people without disabilities (who are otherwise demographically the same), there would have been 3 million more people with disabilities voting. This number includes people who voted by absentee ballot. Sadly, an absentee ballot oftentimes presents an obstacle if you are a person with a disability. Let’s say you don’t have use of your hands so you can’t mark a paper ballot. Or you are blind and the ballot is a printed paper ballot. This method does not ensure your right to a private and independent ballot is met. Just because it arrives at your home doesn’t make it accessible. So let’s stop focusing on trying to create a separate electoral process for people with disabilities and let’s focus more on improving the existing system to make it inclusive.