Disabled Voters Seek Federal Bulwark as States Chip Away Access

July 20, 2021, 8:45 AM

Disabilities advocates watching states chip away at voting opportunities are leaning on the Biden administration to make tangible strides to make voting more accessible.

The federal government can do more to ensure that basic amenities like wheelchair accessible ramps are provided at polling stations or that vital election materials are translated into American Sign Language. Disabilities advocates, who recently met with Vice President Kamala Harris, are rallying in advance of draft recommendations from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) on making voting more accessible.

That sets up a battle between federal election efforts and states like Texas, Florida, and Georgia, that have tightened restrictions on voting in the name of election security. Disability advocates say the new state requirements shut those with mobility, vision, or hearing issues out of the democratic process.

It doesn’t feel like they’re specifically aimed at disabled people, but the “impact is actually taking away accommodations that allow us to participate in the democratic process,” Dessa Cosma, executive director of Detroit Disability Power, said.

President Joe Biden’s March executive order on promoting access to voting requires NIST to issue recommendations by December on providing accommodations to voters with disabilities. A draft of that report is on track for August, according to Sharon Laskowski, a member of the research team.

Voting Gets Harder

Republican-led states are pursuing waves of new voting restrictions in the name of election safety that disabilities advocates warn will leave large numbers of voters with accessibility issues unable to vote. Ending drive-through voting, as Texas is attempting, or banning mass mailing of unsolicited absentee ballots in Florida throw up new barriers to disabled voters, advocates warn.

The new restrictions come as even the most basic accommodations are spotty at most polling stations. Cosma, who uses a wheelchair, said polling stations already lack features like wheelchair-height voting booths for privacy, accessible parking, or doors and hallways wide enough to fit wheelchairs.

Ballot referendums and other campaign materials often aren’t available in sign language, throwing up another barrier for voters who are deaf or hard of hearing, Howard A. Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf, said.

Despite those existing barriers, some states are passing new restrictions that will only make voting more difficult, if not impossible, for those with disabilities, advocates have been telling the Biden administration.

Florida’s new election law requires voters seeking absentee ballots to apply each election when previously one application was good for two election cycles. Not every county’s election office makes it easy to apply for vote by mail, Olivia Babis, senior public policy analyst at Disability Rights Florida, said.

“So having to do this more frequently can be very problematic for voters with disabilities,” she said.

Michigan Republicans passed three new bills that would overhaul the state’s voter ID laws, create stricter voter ID requirements, such as a verified signature from voters, and add more steps to get absentee ballots counted.

“All of the processes of registering or getting an absentee ballot or showing up to vote in person—those were challenging processes when they’re not designed with disabled people in mind,” Cosma said.

Needed Changes

Disability advocates see the upcoming NIST recommendations as an opportunity to counteract some state efforts to restrict voting even if it would take congressional action to make the scope of changes necessary.

Biden’s executive order allocates resources to understand the barriers disabled Americans face at the polls, which is a necessary first step, Cosma said.

“That’s really important because so often—and Covid is a great example of this—people with disabilities are not counted and measured and our experiences are not pulled out as a unique set of experiences, even though they really are. So, the fact that there is specific attention to understanding what the voting barriers are for the wide and diverse disability community is an excellent start.”

Harris hosted a meeting July 14 with representatives from disability organizations to discuss voter accessibility.

“When we shared our experiences, our observations, and our recommendations, she responded, she asked questions, she took notes, and she asked for clarification and specifically told us that she was going to follow up on some things we said and continue to be in touch,” Cosma said.

“So this is a really good sign and gives me hope that this administration is paying attention to our community, which often does not get enough attention.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ayanna Alexander in Washington at aalexander@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew Childers at achilders@bloomberglaw.com; Meghashyam Mali at mmali@bloombergindustry.com

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