At the Polls: Why is it so Hard for 25% of Americans to Vote? (ep. 5)

October 13, 2020
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One in four American adults lives with a disability. And that doesn’t even include the fact that about 45% of Americans live with a chronic illness. During a global pandemic, that means that a huge portion of the electorate has health conditions that impact their ability to vote safely. A new act introduced in Congress has the potential to really help. It's called the Accessible Voting Act. In this episode of At the Polls, we're joined by Susan Mizner, Director of the ACLU's Disability Rights Project, and Curtis Chong, a longtime technologist and advocate for digital accessibility for all.

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“The White House, the Congress, the prospect of change.”
“The importance of each and every vote.”
“Protect and to preserve our voter system.”

[00:00:07] From the ACLU, this is At the Polls. A special miniseries on… you guessed it: voting. I’m Molly McGrath, a voting rights lawyer and organizer and your host for this series.

“The right to vote of all of our young people...”
“Belongs to you.”
“The machinery of democracy should work for everyone, everywhere.”

[00:00:29] This week we’ll be answering the question: Why is voting so inaccessible to people with disabilities? And stay tuned, at the end of the episode we’ll answer a few listener questions.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve talked a lot about how to get every eligible voter to the polls. But what if you’ve done everything you could to vote – you registered on time, you researched your candidates, you requested your ballot – and yet, you still can’t vote.

VOTER WITH DISABILITY: “Transportation is an issue or I have some other physical disability, then I’m not able to leave my home, the ballots aren’t accessible.”

VOTER WITH DISABILITY 2: “This time I had trouble voting because there was only one wheelchair-accessible booth.”

VOTER WITH DISABILITY 3: “All of these things are barriers. If you can’t get in the door, how are you going to vote?”

[00:01:15] Welcome to the world of voting for many Americans living with disabilities, our country’s largest minority voting block. One in four American adults live with a disability. And that doesn’t even include the fact that about 45% of Americans live with a chronic illness. During a global pandemic, that means that a huge portion of the electorate have health conditions that impact their ability to vote safely.

[00:01:41] In 2018, About 14.3 million people with disabilities reported voting. if everyone who was in the disability community voted at the same rate as the general population, we would have had an additional almost two and a half million votes that would have been cast in 2018.

[00:02:03] That’s Susan Mizner, the Director of the ACLU’s Disability Rights Program. I spoke with her to learn more.

I'm thinking of hearing candidates speak and we don't really see people talking about disability rights. And why is this, do you think?

[00:02:20] The disability community has struggled to have a coherent identity that translates into political power. But that's been changing recently.

ELIZABETH WARREN: “Individuals with disabilities ought to be paid fairly for their work.”

KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: “Making sure that every place of voting is ADA compatible, and making sure it’s ADA compliant.”

[00:02:44] In the Democratic primary, most major candidates had a strong disability rights platform. And what's more, that platform came from consulting with actual people with disabilities, which was a huge change and a very welcome one.

[00:02:59] That all sounds encouraging. But we still have a long way to go. A lot of states still have some pretty antiquated laws on the books.

[00:03:08] People with disabilities and felons are the only United States citizens I'm aware of who can be deprived of their right to vote after they're 18. The courts can determine that a person is incompetent to vote. But what this means varies widely from state to state. AThere are states such as Kentucky and Mississippi and Ohio that still have really offensive and outdated language prohibiting “idiots” and “insane people” from voting. This is language that's from an era of eugenics, in which people who were deemed not to be smart enough or conforming enough to social norms were not only deprived of their right to vote, but locked up in institutions and forcibly sterilized.

[00:03:53] What era is this from? I mean, how long ago?

[00:03:56] The early 1900s. It's, it's just outrageous that they're still on the books. My favorite state actually just as an aside is Vermont, which says that a person must be of a “quiet and peaceable nature” to vote.


[00:04:13] I don't know what qualifies as a quiet and peaceful nature, but I think it would rule out a lot of the people in our divided country right now.

[00:04:20] And what, you know, I'm thinking about even just access to the ballot box. So when we talk about accessibility and accessibility in voting, I think a lot of folks might just think, OK, you know, there's the wheelchair ramp to the building. This is accessible, but it's so much more than that.

[00:04:39] You're right that that architectural access for people with mobility disabilities has been a focus. It's still a problem. But the disability community is much broader than people with mobility disabilities. Folks with hearing disabilities, people who are culturally deaf need information in American Sign Language.

NEWS ANCHOR: “Hundreds of voters waiting in hours long lines in heat, some in the rain, to cast their ballots.”

NEWS ANCHOR 2: “Long lines greeting some eager voters on the first day of early voting in Illinois.”

[00:05:15] Obstacles for people who have chronic illnesses like myself, going and standing in line for any length of time is a huge barrier to people who are mobile, but not, how do I put this? We're not durable. We cannot, we cannot sustain effort over two hours if there's a two-hour line at the polls.

There's visual accessibility. For many, many years, people who had no ability to read the ballot had no access to a private and independent vote. They had to tell someone else how they wanted to vote and then trust with fingers crossed that that was actually translating to their ballot. No way to verify that.

[00:06:04] In 2016, the Government Accountability Office found that over two thirds of the polling locations they surveyed across the nation were not physically accessible. And that survey didn’t even fully reflect the inaccessibility issues with the equipment inside polling places.

Curtis Chong, a long-time technologist who has fought for digital accessibility across the country, would argue the numbers are even worse than reported. He’s often had to deal with insufficient solutions as a blind voter. Can you share a little bit about your experience using inaccessible machines?

[00:06:45] Okay, so way back in 2003, 2004, I was living and working in the state of Iowa. And this was after the Help America Vote Act was adopted.

INFOMERCIAL: “The Help America Vote Act. HAVA has mandated changes in almost every part of the voting process, from voter registration to election equipment. From voter education programs to accessibility for citizens with disabilities.”

[00:07:10] I went in there and I knew that there were these machines -- not every ballot marking station at the polls at that time had the machine, but every polling center was required to have at least one accessible voting piece of equipment. So I would go in and I would say, no, I don't want you to help me mark my ballot. I want to use the accessible voting machine. They would show you where the buttons were. But if you needed any kind of help to use it, the poll worker themselves did not know what the buttons did. They didn't know how to make it go faster or slower and they freaked out. And I was pretty much left to my own devices. So you know what? I just gave up, and I just had somebody help me mark the ballot because that's the easiest thing. And that's a strategy that I used before that worked.

I moved, this is 2013, to New Mexico. And in 2014, they spent six million dollars to bring in a new system where at the polls everybody who was a voter would use this. So I went there, to the county offices, and I tried the machine. And I found out that this particular model talked really slow, slower almost than normal speech, that the audio fidelity was, at the best, muffled. If you speeded it up two notches above normal, all of a sudden it would start dropping words or clipping words. You went out and bought these machines. You never came and talked to blind people at all. And what we have is a system that at best makes the ballot less accessible.

[00:08:33] What this demonstrates to me, right, is that there's no real consistency across the board. I mean, you've shared your experience voting in different states, different machines. Why do you think the government doesn't do more though? What do you kind of identify as the reason some of these barriers still exist?

[00:08:49] I'm not really sure. I think it's lack of understanding. That's part of it. So you think about not having vision and the normal reaction, which is not correct, but it is instinctive, is that if I lose my vision, I don't have vision, I can't even get from my office to the bathroom or my office to the elevator or out of the building, let alone, you know, taking public transportation to get to and from work. So those people who are doing it, who are obviously blind, let's say, who live normal, productive lives, who are, you know, looked upon by their compatriots as experts in whatever field they're in, they are regarded a lot of times as amazing.

So either we're amazing because we can tie our shoes or go get coffee on our own, or we're incredibly stupid becauseg people envision a blind person is like sitting in a rocking chair and not going anywhere, not being active, not using technology, depending on their family members to help them with everything.

[00:09:45] So you think of that as the backdrop behind why aren't people working on voting? They don't think about it! It doesn't come to the forefront of their mind unless the noise is made. Like if a group of people go to Congress like we do every year and we say in February, you know, we want something for the blind, they remember us then. But they don't think about us any other time because we're not there and so we're not a problem anymore. And that's why it's not happening. I think it's because we're not asking forcefully enough. We're starting to do it now as blind people for a greater accessibility in the voting process. But there's a mountain to move, a huge mountain.

[00:10:19] A huge mountain, indeed. America’s patchwork voting system poses a real challenge to ensuring accessibility for all. Whether or not your state is accessible often depends on having someone like Curtis fighting in your state. But that shouldn’t be the case. While Congress has passed legislation aimed at improving access to the vote, the legislation hasn’t been enough.

[00:10:46] People with disabilities have joined African Americans, women, Native Americans in centuries of advocacy to be able to get to the polls, the historical landmarks in terms of voting rights laws.

LYNDON B JOHNSON: “Because all Americans must have the right to vote. And we are going to give them that right.”

GEORGE H.W. BUSH: “I now lift my pen to sign this Ameircans with Disabilities Act and say, let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down. God bless.”

BILL CLINTON: “Every eligible American. When we leave here today, we ought to say this voting rights bill and the others will not be in vain. Every year from now on we’re gonna have more registered voters and more people voting.”

[00:11:32] You know, we have all this legislation on the books and then we see the reports of polling places being inaccessible.

[00:11:40] Yeah, it's, it's pretty infuriating. I just think it hasn't made it to a lot of the states where disability rights advocacy hasn't been strong. And as one of the reasons that I'm so excited about the Accessible Voting Act, because it's trying to create a system in which this can't happen.

[00:12:09] Yeah, tell us more about the Accessible Voting Act. What would it do? How would this be different? And why you are excited about the potential here.

[00:12:17] Sure. So Senators Bob Casey and Amy Klobuchar have introduced this bill, and it's co-sponsored by Kirsten Gillibrand, endorsed by a host of disability rights and civil rights organizations, including the ACLU. At the federal level, it creates an office with disability access expertise that will serve as the hub of resources for public and election officials. It tracks accessibility of online voter information nationwide. And it's a resource for people with disabilities, how to know where to go to register and to vote. So that's the first thing. The second is this huge grant program to the states. And one of the most important pieces of that is money that makes sure that the state websites are accessible. And then finally, the act allows the protection advocacy offices around the country, and those offices have in the past been allowed to provide advice to state and local election officials. But they haven't been able to sue over disability rights violation. And this act allows them to do that.

[00:13:29] I feel like we all wish that these laws would be in place without, you know, work having to force our states with a carrot and stick. But this is where we are. And what is this look like as far as the path to victory?

[00:13:41] I am guardedly hopeful. There's very little that is going to get attention before the November elections are over. But disability is really a bipartisan issue. There are lots of very principled Republican leaders who understand disability and who can advocate for us as well. And I'm hoping that they will understand that the disability community is also bipartisan. And that we have a decent chance of getting this passed in 2021.

[00:14:19] And what can our listeners do right now as they hear about this. They hear about these issues that have plagued voter accessibility and accessibility for voters with disabilities for far too long. What would you tell some of our listeners?

[00:14:32] I think it's the usual two things. One is contact your senator, tell them you want them to support this. And the second is to report problems. If you are a person with a disability and you have difficulty registering to vote, voting or having your ballot counted, let people know. The ACLU is coordinated with multilingual and accessible systems all over the country to report problems with registration and voting. And it's our duty not to just give up. At this point in our history, we all have to vote not just as if our rights depend on it, but as if our lives do.

[00:15:14] So clearly these are issues and these are issues now, but we’re hopeful that the Accessible Voting Act is something we can pass in the future. It’s important for all of us to vote for leaders who will make it a priority.

Now let's answer some listener questions. We’ve been getting so many from all of you voting enthusiasts — it makes my nerdy voting heart so happy.

LISTENER VOICEMAIL: “I would like to know if Election Day there will be curbside voting, and if so, how will it be handled? And would curbside voting be safer than absentee ballots? I think curbside voting would be very helpful for the handicapped people.”

[00:15:57] First, remember that voting by mail is something that is secure, it’s something we’ve been doing in this country since the civil war. And it’s going to be the safest options for many this election cycle. Curbside voting is a great option for many voters, and curbside voting can really increase accessibility at polling locations.

For folks who don’t know what curbside voting is, it allows voters to cast a ballot in their car outside of their polling location. Check with your local election official to see what these options look like for you. And remember, all polling locations need to be accessible to voters with disabilities. So that means you must be able to access the building, if you have trouble waiting in line you can request a chair. And the equipment that you vote on must be accessible to you. These are your rights.

LISTENER VOICEMAIL 2: “What organizations exist out there to help connect people who want to help encourage voting? I guess I’m just wondering how can I help someone who maybe doesn’t have as much access to voting, vote?

[00:17:03] This is a great question and this is really an all-hands-on-deck moment in this country. There are many great organizations that you can volunteer with. My favorite is right here at the ACLU with People Power. We will be calling voters across the country, texting voters, and you can do all of this right from your home. You can sign up at Join us, we need you.

Thanks so much to Curtis Chong and Susan Mizner for joining us this week. Until next time, find out where your members of Congress stand on the Accessible Voting Act. And if you haven’t already, make a voting plan.

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