In Conversation About Voting Rights, People With Disabilities Often Feel Overlooked

For years, Georgians have celebrated Disability Day at the state Capitol. It’s a day of advocacy to bring awareness to issues that affect people with disabilities. One issue they have long fought for is voting access.

Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities

As election season approaches, some activists are pushing to expand voting access, especially for minority groups. However, one of the country’s largest minority groups says it’s often left out of those efforts.

People with disabilities are trying to make sure their voices are heard this time around.

The Fight For Rights

Recently, former Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams announced the expansion of her voting rights group, Fair Fight Action. Abrams lost the 2018 race to now-Gov. Brian Kemp. During her announcement, Abrams echoed a refrain from her campaign: Elected officials purposely make it hard for some people to cast a ballot.

People with disabilities make up one of the biggest minority groups in the U.S., but some advocates say they’re overlooked in conversations about voting rights. (Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities)

“People don’t vote because there are obstacles in the way,” Abrams said. “They can’t register to vote. They can’t stay on the rolls. They get on the rolls, they stay on the rolls, but they can’t cast their ballot because of long lines and closed polling places, and if they get through all those hurdles, they find out their votes didn’t count.”

State officials have denied erecting barriers to voting.

Kemp, who was Georgia’s chief elections official during the race, defended removing hundreds of thousands of names from the voter rolls in 2017. His office said voters were only removed if they hadn’t voted in previous elections and didn’t respond to notices from the state.

But for people like Zoe Gross, fighting for voting access isn’t new. She says people with disabilities have long struggled to ensure those rights.

“We often need help getting to the polls, making sure our polling places are accessible,” she said.

Gross is the director of operations at the Autism Self-Advocacy Network in Washington, D.C. She says local officials sometimes use people with disabilities as an excuse to close polling locations. That’s because the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires voting sites to be accessible to people with disabilities.

That can be expensive. So, local municipalities sometimes close the locations instead of paying to upgrade them.

Out Of Compliance

That issue came up during the 2018 race in Randolph County, Georgia. A local elections board considered closing several polling places because they weren’t accessible.

“[Officials don’t say,] ‘Let’s fund the polling places to help them become more accessible’ or ‘Let’s look in those neighborhoods for accessible places so everyone there can go vote,’” Gross said. “They’re using the requirement that polling places be accessible as sort of a lever for voter suppression.”

Randolph County recently considered closing some polling locations in majority-white areas because the buildings weren’t accessible for people with disabilities. “[Closing voting locations] can create this idea that disabled people are willing to be used as this lever to suppress the votes of others,” said Zoe Gross, director of operations at the Autism Self-Advocacy Network in Washington, D.C. (Johnny Kauffman/WABE)

The Randolph County board ultimately decided not to shut down the locations. Critics said if they had, it would’ve disenfranchised hundreds of black voters.

“[Closing voting locations] can create this idea that disabled people are willing to be used as this lever to suppress the votes of others,” Gross said. “And really, in our community, we’re not about that. We want everyone to have the right to vote.”

Campaigning For Change

Although they’ve been left out in the past, people with disabilities are finding their voice on this issue.

Keri Gray is the senior director of stakeholder engagement and strategic communications with the American Association of People with Disabilities. She started a campaign called “Rev Up” to urge people with disabilities to vote and to educate poll workers on what it means to make a polling place accessible.

Advocates say in some states people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are put under a guardianship may be automatically barred from voting. That’s not the case in Georgia. (Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities)

“There has to be an intentionality process around the regulations in terms of having materials [that are] accessible to people that are low-vision blind when they walk in and need to be able to vote, to folks that are utilizing wheelchairs and making sure that the infrastructure of the buildings are accessible, to folks that may not have access to utilizing their hands,” Gray said.

Most poll workers are volunteers. Gray says they may not be trained on what the law requires for people with disabilities.

However, that only matters if voters can get to the polls. Eric Jacobson, the executive director of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, says that can be a huge hurdle.

“Transportation to polling places [is] extremely difficult, but extremely important,” he said.

Jacobson said it’s not always as simple as showing up in your car to offer a ride. People with disabilities often need accessible vehicles, he said.

“If [vehicles] are not accessible and somebody uses one of those big, heavy, motorized wheelchairs, so you can’t just pick somebody up and then fold their wheelchair in the back of the car or the back of the bus or whatever. It makes it almost impossible, then, to get to the polling place,” Jacobson said.

What about the people who might be able to fix all of this: the political candidates?

Gregg Beratan says none of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates has done enough to reach out to disabled voters. Beratan co-founded #cripthevote after the 2016 election. He was frustrated that candidates didn’t speak to the disabled community.

“There were disability issues in the campaign, but no one was connecting them to the disability community,” he said. “So, when they talked about health care, they barely mentioned Medicaid.”

If and when we get our act together and really get involved in the political process, we will have the capacity and the ability to change what’s taking place on elections on all levels.”
Eric Jacobson, executive director of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities

About 10 million people with disabilities are enrolled in Medicaid. #cripthevote has taken off on social media, but Beratan is disappointed that the new crop of candidates hasn’t made much progress on including people with disabilities.

“Much of what our community has expressed over the last 3 1/2 years has been about forcing our way into the conversation … whether it’s an understanding that issues like gun violence, health care, school safety, education are all disability issues or whether it’s an understanding that our community needs access to the polls as well,” Beratan said.

Making Inroads?

Stacey Abrams says Fair Fight Action will include people with disabilities in its efforts to expand voting access.

“Voter protection covers the gamut,” Abrams said. “It includes registration, being able to cast a ballot, and being able to have that ballot counted. And so, we’re going to work with the disabled community on every part of that spectrum, but we’re going to do the same for every community that is marginalized and faces voter suppression.”

Stacey Abrams launched the expansion of her voting rights group, Fair Fight, recently in Gwinnett County. Abrams says her group will work to protect the voting rights of people with disabilities as well as other marginalized groups. (Martha Dalton/WABE)

In the meantime, campaigns like #cripthevote and Rev Up aren’t waiting around for help. They’re engaging people now to get them excited and prepared for upcoming elections.

Voter turnout for people with disabilities increased by 8.5 percent in 2018. Eric Jacobson says if that kind of engagement continues, voters with disabilities could have a big impact on outcomes.

“…we will have the capacity and the ability to change what’s taking place in elections on all levels,” he said.