Voting rights

Senior man using headphones and voting on an accessible voting machine.

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Question:  How many Americans with disabilities are not registered to vote?

A) 3 million

B) 8 million

C) 14 million

D) 23 million

Answer: C) 14 million

The ability to exercise the right to vote is one of America’s most prized freedoms – it is a powerful way to participate in government, and make one’s opinion as a citizen heard. However, for many people with disabilities, this constitutional right has been systemically denied. Although new laws have created significant changes, there are still many barriers that face voters with disabilities.

For much of America’s history, people with disabilities have been viewed in a negative light. In the 19th century, many associated disability with social problems, and disability was often criminalized (Rafter). These views were frequently used to deny citizenship rights to people with disabilities. Although original justifications for disenfranchisement were based on whether or not an individual owned property, state laws eventually evolved. Officials argued that if a person had a disability, they would not be able to vote with reason and thus should not be allowed to vote (Nielson). It is important to note, though, that not all disabilities were treated equally.  Physical disabilities that resulted from military service in the Civil War were often seen as a sign of patriotism, not a social ill (ibid).

Throughout the later 19th and 20th centuries, voting rights were gradually expanded to wider groups of people. Constitutional amendments expanded suffrage to women and people of color, lowered the voting age to 18, and removed barriers to voting such as poll taxes and literacy tests. However, significant legal changes for voters with disabilities did not come until later in the 20th century. The first major legislation that addressed their needs was the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984. The legislation reads “it is the intent of Congress in enacting this Act to promote the fundamental right to vote by improving access” to voting (“Voting”) . The value statements made in the act were a huge step forward compared to historical attitudes regarding voters with disabilities. Unfortunately, the Voting Accessibility Act had several shortcomings. States were able to avoid many of the mandated changes due to a lack of enforcement measures. Because the act addressed accessibility in federal elections, states often ignored the requirements in local and state elections (Cohen). Many polling places remained physically inaccessible, and the alternate accessible ones echoed a “separate but equal” approach to accommodations, raising questions of constitutionality and basic equality of rights (ibid).The next significant piece of voting legislation was the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also known as the Motor Voter Act. The goal of this act was to increase voter registration numbers across the board, but also with particular emphasis on racial minorities and people with disabilities. This was to be achieved through increasing access to registration materials and requiring groups that provided services to people with disabilities to assist in the registration process (ibid). However, as stated in the trivia question above, a significant number of people with disabilities are still not registered to vote.

Following the controversy of the 2000 presidential election, Americans across the political spectrum called for election reform. The result was the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA). One of HAVA’s benefits to voters with disabilities wass that it required the use of updated voting equipment, which was more accessible than the older machines. It also resolved some of the loopholes in the Voting Accessibility Act by requiring that all polling places have an accessible booth, allowing equality in access, independence, and privacy in voting (ibid).

Although HAVA and its predecessors have made significant progress in ensuring the right to vote for people with disabilities, there is still much room for improvement. Many people with mental illness or intellectual disabilities can be denied the right to vote relatively easily. According to Scotch et al, “in 44 states, individuals with cognitive and emotional impairments cannot vote when they are adjudicated incompetent or are put under guardianship” (937). Disability rights activists will continue to work on voting access issues until the ability to vote, one of our most basic rights, is equally available to all.

Works Cited

Cohen, David. “The Right to Vote and the Physically Disabled.” Michigan Bar Journal 85.8 (2006): 34-37. Print.

Nielsen, Kim. A Disability History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012. Print.

Rafter, Nicole. “The Criminalization of Mental Retardation.” Mental Retardation in America. Ed. Steven Noll and James W. Trent Jr. New York: New York University Press, 2004. Print.

Scotch, Richard et al. “Voting.” Encyclopedia of American Disability History. Ed. Susan Burch. Vol. 3. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009. Print.

“Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act Public Law 98-435: An Act.” Reprinted in Encyclopedia of American Disability History. Ed. Susan Burch. Vol. 3. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009. Print.