After the recent midterm elections and the upcoming general election in 2024, now is a crucial time for US voters who wish to make their voices heard.
Yet, for many voters with disabilities, the US election process is inaccessible. Voting machines are often located in buildings without any assistance for disabled voters – and the task is set to get much more difficult.
In late January, a Wisconsin judge restricted state voting methods to just two forms: in-person voting and mail-in ballots. This left many citizens cut off from having a say, with huge numbers unable to handle voting forms and envelopes without assistance or leaving their homes.
The problem shows no signs of abating, with Republicans and GOP-aligned groups focused on tightening voting laws amid fears of voting fraud that they believe could affect the crucial 2024 vote.
Lagging behind other countries
The US voting system is based on the democratic method of one vote per citizen, but it lags behind many other countries when it comes to ways of casting ballots.
While voting is a much more important and sensitive task than buying groceries or playing the lottery online, secure technology now allows citizens in Canada, France, and Estonia (to name three) to register their vote online for either local or national elections. This is a big advantage for people who are unable to leave their homes, or travel to the nearest voting booth.
Yet this method is impossible for US voters, with certain states banning other voting practices that are commonplace abroad.
In Alabama, for example, Republican legislators banned curbside voting, where disabled voters who cannot physically enter the polling station cast their form from outside. Wisconsin, as mentioned, now only permits two voting methods, while Texas and Florida have passed new laws that make it harder for people with disabilities to vote, including returning multiple ballots from one household and proxy voters swearing oaths before the votes are counted.
With new law changes on the cards before 2024, almost 18 million disabled people who voted in the 2020 election now face significant new hurdles to do the same in the next election. The same report even stated it would be ‘twice as difficult’, and there are concerns that it could impact a tight election result.
An effect on the result
With the US election often a closely fought battle in several key states, there are fears that even a marginal drop in disabled voters will have a significant impact on the overall result.
Taking the 18 million figure, even just a 5% drop represents almost a million people, with a disproportionate amount in states with voting law changes, like Texas and Florida. If either of these states has a close-run battle between the two parties, then we could see a dramatic shift.
The effect is more keenly felt among people of color who, according to the CDC, are statistically more likely to be disabled than white Americans. One in three Native Americans and one in four Black Americans have disabilities (according to the figures), compared to one in five of the white population.
Often, a seemingly minor issue to an able-bodied person can make or break a disabled person’s vote, whether it’s having a ramp into a polling station, or even including self-adhesive envelopes in mail ballots.
Mitigating the effects
People with disabilities may feel helpless in the face of such law changes, but there is some hope of a fightback.
Congress could have the power to implement federal laws that soften the effect of these state law changes. The For the People Act, for example, opens up early voting and same-day voter registration, and also places pressure on voting places to improve their accessibility. Another bill, The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, goes even further and prevents states from carrying out restrictive voting laws, but this failed to pass Congress in February 2022.
Some state laws, too, fight for disabled voters’ rights. In North Carolina, for instance, there’s a permanent online voting system for absentee ballots, while more than 900 bills across 49 states aim to expand voting access. Unfortunately, though, this means many disabled Americans’ voting access will depend on where they live.
Such legislation faces stiff opposition from the GOP, but if brought to pass, it may enable millions of voters with disabilities to have a say.
With time running out before the vote in 2024, people fighting for equal rights face a race against time to improve disabled voters’ chances of taking part in the next election.