For many American voters with disabilities, simply getting to their polling place on Tuesday is only the beginning of their struggle. As a result, voter participation has consistently been lower among citizens with disabilities, resulting in less-representative elections.
“I talk to people who have disabilities who just don’t vote anymore," Martin Odian, a longtime elections officer in Menlo Park, California, told The Huffington Post on Tuesday. "It’s too frustrating and too hard to get in.”
A 2013 report authored by Rutgers professor Lisa Schur for The Presidential Commission on Election Administration said that among people with disabilities who had registered to vote in 2012, only 82.1 percent of those actually voted; by contrast, 87.5 percent of registered voters without disabilities had voted. The report went on to say there could be as many as 3 million more voters with disabilities if they voted at the same rate as "otherwise-similar people without disabilities."
"The trouble with voting is, today is it. There’s no do-over tomorrow," Curtis Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network told The Huffington Post. "If people are denied their right to vote today, they’ve been disenfranchised.”
Odian, who identifies as having a learning disability himself, said that in the 12 years since the passing of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which ushered in sweeping reforms aimed at improving voting systems and voter access, improvements have been negligible in the voting experience for people with disabilities.
"Just a few years ago, we had to take the [voting unit for people with disabilities] from our site out to the parking lot so someone could vote at the car,” Odian said.
Even though there's more awareness about voting challenges for people with disabilities, attorney Melissa Picciola with the Chicago-based group Equip for Equality said voters with disabilities "continue to report the same issues year after year."
Despite national election laws like HAVA in place, Decker said the problem trickles down to the local level, where elections are governed by hyperlocal elections boards. Decker said accessibility can be especially difficult in smaller towns and rural areas where polling stations are often located in church basements, clubs and private homes.
Beyond a lack of physical accessibility to a polling place, electronic voting machines can also pose a problem. HAVA-mandated machines used for federal elections and meant to assist people with visual impairments or other disabilities can sometimes malfunction, but small towns in particular may not have backup machines to dispatch. In other cases, Picciola said, "voters with disabilities commonly report that the machines aren’t set up, or that the election officers don’t know how to operate them."
For voters with obvious developmental disabilities, Decker said discrimination by election judges who don't think they're eligible is another common issue that can discourage people at the polls.
Even voting laws that purport to curb voter fraud can have the unintended consequence of further disenfranchising voters with disabilities. Decker cited Texas, with its strict voter ID laws, as just one example.
"Voter suppression is a big deal," Decker said. "The biggest population of people without drivers licenses are people with disabilities.”
And though voters with disabilities are a minority, Abilities United Associate Director Sheraden Nicholau notes they're a significant one. "And," Nicholau added, "it’s the only group that any one of us can become a member of at any moment in our lifetime."
Nicholau went on to say that at least 16 percent of the population is considered to have a physical, developmental or learning disability, while the 2010 U.S. Census puts the figure as high as 19 percent, or one in five Americans.
When it comes to changing the voting experience for Americans with disabilities, Decker said relying on absentee voting is not the answer -- visibility is.
"With absentee voting, we lose the PR function of the fact that the disabled community is a powerful voting block," Decker said. "We’re losing that ability to say to the candidates, 'Hey, you need to pay attention to this disability vote.' It’s very, very powerful. We spend billions and billions on disability programs, yet you never hear candidates talk about them in their debates."