Can I Vote Privately and Independently if I Have a Disability?

Michelle Bishop

Michelle Bishop

Voters with disabilities not only have the right to receive assistance, they have the right to refuse it. Michelle Bishop explains how to cast a confidential ballot with confidence.

Do not be deterred - your voice will be heard.

U.S. Vote Foundation’s Resource for Voters with Disabilities was created to serve the 38 million people with disabilities who are eligible to vote in the United States. If you’re a voter with a disability, you are entitled to the full and equal opportunity to participate in elections per federal law.

Yet, with around two-thirds of polling locations not meeting compliance standards for accessibility, can you actually have the opportunity to cast your ballot privately and independently? Yes, your right is protected.
 

Meet Michelle Bishop - She advocates for your accessibility rights.

Michelle Bishop is the Voter Access and Engagement Manager at the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN). Congress established NDRN’s national network of organizations with a mandate to provide protection and advocacy for people with disabilities. In her conversation with U.S. Vote Foundation (US Vote), Michelle Bishop explains how to navigate barriers to the ballot box, and how the NDRN can help you.

US.VOTE

Let’s start off by discussing the ways polling locations do tend to be accessible for voters with disabilities. Are there accommodations voters can expect would likely be available at most polling locations

Michelle Bishop

I know that the numbers look grim when we talk about polling place accessibility, and we could be doing much better in that regard. 

That said, your right to equal access and to a private and independent vote is protected by federal law. So you should never give up your right to vote. Your elections administrators have to find a way to make voting work for you. 

If your polling place is not accessible to you, you can request to vote curbside or be assigned to a different polling place. 

You ask to move up in line if you cannot wait in a line, and you have to be accommodated in some way. 

There has to be at least one accessible voting machine in each polling place, and it has a myriad of accessibility features. 

You also have the federal right to bring anyone you want with you to assist you, if you need or want that. The only exception is that it cannot be your employer or your union representative. 

What makes voting accessible for one person is not what works for another. So the most important thing you can do is make a plan to vote ahead of time, learn your rights and options, and talk to your elections administrators about what they can offer you.

US.VOTE

In what ways are polling locations falling short? What are the most common problems people report about accessibility?

Michelle Bishop

If you asked this question directly to all the organizations in our network, I bet they would all laugh and say the same thing - parking lots. 

For some reason, polling places never seem to have Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant parking lots that are stable, firm, slip resistant, and have enough accessible parking spaces and access aisles that aren’t taken up by the poll workers. 

In general, we also see a lot of polling places that don’t fall under the ADA typically, but they have to when they are being used as a polling place. Churches and private homes are great examples. If they aren’t accessible the other 365 days of the year, we have to be able to adapt them and make them accessible for elections. 

The other problem we see increasingly is pushback on use of accessible voting machines at polling places based on unfounded fears of election stealing. This has never happened with this equipment, but the more those stories spread - we see fewer accessible machines in polling places that are off in the corner. We’re segregating out voters with disabilities, and then we aren’t maintaining the equipment or training poll workers on it. 

We have to continually renew our commitment to the ADA and Help America Vote Act (HAVA) to make sure all voters are able to cast their ballots. 

US.VOTE

When a problem related to a person’s disability arises while trying to cast a ballot in person, what should the voter do?

Michelle Bishop

Most importantly, never give up your right to vote! 

You can advocate for yourself with your elections officials, who don’t understand all the complexities of our large and diverse community. 

If that doesn’t resolve your issue, there are other supports available to you. You can always contact Election Protection or you can find our member organization in your state. Either will be committed to resolving your issue before polls close to make sure you get to cast your ballot.

US.VOTE

We hope that the US Vote Resource for Voters with Disabilities can prepare voters to cast ballots, but recognize that one’s plan of how to vote can be foiled by unexpected challenges. 

Are there steps you recommend voters take before a problem arises to avoid common pitfalls? 

Should concerned voters contact their local election office before setting out to vote?

Michelle Bishop

Making a plan to vote is an important step for every voter, but especially for voters with disabilities who experience more barriers than many other voters.

You want to know how you are going to vote: on Election Day, during early voting, by mail, etc. What are the deadlines, what do you need for an ID, where do you have to go and how will you get there and back, do you need an assistant and who will that be, what do you need to make it accessible to you…and of course, how you will celebrate having participated in democracy. 

In terms of planning to avoid common pitfalls, the key is not to wait until the last minute to create your plan or to cast your ballot. 

I also always think it’s a great idea to contact your elections officials. They can tell you your polling place, some of your options, what kind of ID you might need, if your polling place is accessible. It can help you to troubleshoot issues in advance, so you don’t show up on Election Day and find out that your polling place is not accessible to you. You might even be able to practice using accessible voting equipment in advance, so you feel confident when you go to vote.

US.VOTE

What types of problems tend to arise for voters with disabilities who prefer to vote by mail or with an absentee ballot?

Michelle Bishop

Voting by mail was the rock star of 2020, when we were all trying to socially distance. It was so helpful for many voters, and we made voting by mail easier in a lot of ways in response, like relaxing deadlines, getting rid of excuses required to vote by mail, and allowing voters to request it electronically. Smart states also ditched some unnecessary hoops that we usually make voters jump through, like requiring notaries or doctor notes proving your disability to vote remotely. 

That said, 2020 also really highlighted the inaccessibility of traditional vote-by-mail. Handling and marking a piece of paper is never going to be accessible to everyone, like those who are blind or don’t have use of their hands. The most powerful tool we have to address that is systems that allow you to receive, mark, and return your remote ballot electronically, eliminating paper from the process for people with print disabilities. 

These systems already exist and have been safely in use for years for military and overseas voters. We are increasingly extending them to disabled voters stateside, and that is a game changer. 

US.VOTE

What advice would you provide to voters who experience these difficulties?

Michelle Bishop

Your vote matters. Know your rights and your options, and know who to contact if you have questions or experience difficulties. Of course, I recommend contacting our network in your state.

US.VOTE

Initially, the NDRN focused on protection and advocacy for individuals with intellectual disabilities in institutionalized settings. Have you seen change over time in voting access for people in this setting?
 

Michelle Bishop

That’s true! Our network grew out of the movement toward deinstitutionalization once we collectively realized that institutions can be very scary places, and people with disabilities can live, work, and play in their communities just like everyone else. 

Unfortunately, I think that is one of the areas where we’ve seen the least progress in terms of voter access. Too many people in long term care facilities have to rely on others to be able to vote. That could be the good will of elections officials to set up polling places in residential facilities or send staff in to vote the residents. It could be trusting staff or visiting friends and family to get your ballot to you or return your completed ballot. 

It’s great that all of these things exist, but we learned during the pandemic that we can’t rely on election staff or friends and family coming into facilities that had to keep them out to protect the residents from COVID. Beyond that, not everyone has friends or family they can rely on. Facilities staff have a very real obligation to help with voting, but they are already overworked. 

All this is to say nothing of the fact that residents of institutions are largely ignored in get-out-the-vote and candidate campaigns. We haven’t solved these issues yet, but it’s a big priority for NDRN. We need a culture shift around how we think about people who live in long term care facilities.

US.VOTE

How does guardianship and conservatorship affect a person’s right to vote?

Michelle Bishop

This issue is really complicated. In some states, having a guardian has no impact at all on your right to vote.  In the majority of states, you can potentially lose your right to vote if you are under a guardianship, but how that works looks different in every state. 

We do have resources we created with our partners to help you figure out how guardianship could impact you as a voter. It’s best to know this information going in, so that you can potentially protect your right to vote at the time a guardianship is being established and not lose it at all. 

You can also always call our affiliate in your state. They can help you figure out what the rules are in your state and help you advocate to get your right to vote back if you’ve already lost it.

US.VOTE

What message would you like to amplify based on your experience as a Voting Access and Engagement Manager?

Michelle Bishop

If you are someone who works in the elections space, I would stress that voters with disabilities matter and have legal rights that have to be honored. 

That said, we don’t expect you to be experts in all things disability and access. You just have to talk to organizations like NDRN and our network. We’d like to take our knowledge and experience in disability rights and combine it with everything you know about elections to make it work for voters. 

If you are a person with a disability, I can only say that your vote matters more than you will ever know, so use it.

US.VOTE

The NDRN has been a tremendous asset to US Vote with the creation of our Resource for Voters with Disabilities. Thank you for your partnership, your commitment, and your dedication to democracy!

Michelle Bishop

Thank you! We appreciate our partnership with U.S. Vote Foundation so much.

US Vote’s secure Voter Accounts are a useful tool for voters with disabilities. Voters can safely store information on their accounts instead of entering the information again and again each time they generate forms. Voters can also get handy email reminders about election dates and deadlines. It's easy to set up an account and so useful.
 

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