“When any American, no matter where they live or what their party, are denied [the right to vote] because they can’t afford to wait for five or six or seven hours just to cast their ballot, we are betraying our ideals. So tonight, I’m announcing a nonpartisan commission to improve the voting experience in America.” – President Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, February 12, 2013
Just over a month later, the President made good on his promise and the Presidential Commission on Election Administration (The Presidential Commission) was established by Executive Order on March 28, 2013. Their mission? To come up with “common-sense, non-partisan solutions,” identify best practices and issue “recommendations for state and local election officials to reduce waiting times at the polls and improve all citizens’ voting experience.”
The Presidential Commission was originally supposed to issue a report in December, within six months of its first meeting, but it was granted an extension until January because of the government shutdown last October. The Presidential Commission will dissolve later this month following the publication of the report they were formed to create.
As detailed in news reports, the Commission’s report will cover voters’ experience at the polls informed by input from customer service experts. The report is intended to be comprehensive and detail the numerous obstacles faced when attempting to vote by members of the military, overseas voters, voters with limited English proficiency, senior citizens and voters with disabilities.
With regard to voters with disabilities, what is the current status of voting access in the United States? Exact totals are difficult to come by, but according the latest available figures – and despite notable advances since enacting the Help America Vote Act in 2002 – much work still needs to be done.
At an NCD policy forum held on April 23, 2013 on Capitol Hill, former Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) expressed the impact that the lack of accessibility had in the 2000 elections. “Twenty-one million people with disabilities did not vote,” said Dodd. “That made the disabled communities the single largest demographic group of nonvoters in the United States of America. At that time, only 16 percent of polling places were physically accessible. And not one, not one of the nearly 500 polling locations which the General Accounting Office (GAO) visited on Election Day in 2000, had special ballots adapted for blind voters.”
My previous blog posted by Disability.gov in November 2012 detailed that as of 2008, a voter with a disability faced nearly a 75 percent chance that he or she would NOT be able to use his or her assigned polling precinct to vote. The GAO found in 2008 that only 27 percent of polling places were barrier-free, echoing Federal Election Commission findings from 1992 that found more than 20,000 polling places across the nation were inaccessible and in violation of state and federal laws, depriving Americans with disabilities of their fundamental right to vote.
An open-ended survey of voters with disabilities conducted by NCD just after the November 2012 election suggests that not much has changed since then. If one considers additional obstacles like long lines and inaccessible voting materials, the barriers to civic participation for voters with disabilities are even more striking.
United States Census Bureau figures suggest that the population of Americans with disabilities is now one in five between the ages of 18 and 64, totaling 56.7 million or 18.7 percent of our population. No matter how you break it down, that’s a lot of people who are likely to be left out of one of the most fundamental components of the democratic process.
Factor in the number of Americans who are aging – often acquiring disabilities as they do – and the numbers increase to a whopping one in two. Of the 17 percent of voting-age Americans who are age 65 years or older, at least 36 percent identify as having a disability. This estimate does not account for the number of seniors who may have vision, mobility, hearing or cognitive impairments and who, for various reasons whether they are cultural or habitual, do not identify as “disabled.”
Add it all up and it seems fair to imagine that significant numbers of the American voting public need accessibility accommodations when voting. The Presidential Commission cannot and should not ignore those figures; they are only going to increase with advancements in health care, increased longevity and decreases in senior mortality.
So, what to do? Thankfully, there is no reason to reinvent the wheel. NCD made a series of recommendations in our report to the President about the “Experience of Voters with Disabilities” that we released in October 2013, many of which were directed to the Presidential Commission for consideration prior to the release of their report.
NCD recommends that the Presidential Commission on Election Administration and the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) encourage state and local jurisdictions to ensure that universally designed, accessible voting machines are available, functioning and situated to provide complete privacy for voters with disabilities.
NCD also recommends that the Commission should draw on the reported experiences of voters with disabilities to improve the experience of all voters, including senior citizens.
NCD also recommended in its report that the Presidential Commission should identify and recommend promising practices related to voting processes that can enhance the experience of voters with disabilities, while protecting their rights by eliminating barriers to the electoral process. Examples of specific practices include vote-by-mail systems currently used in Oregon and the permanent absentee ballot voter status recently introduced in Connecticut.
Last February, the President ended his State of the Union speech by evoking the example of centenarian voter Desiline Victor. Said the President:
“When Desiline arrived at her polling place, she was told the wait to vote might be six hours. And as time ticked by, her concern was not with her tired body or aching feet, but whether folks like her would get to have their say. And hour after hour, a throng of people stayed in line to support her – because Desiline is 102 years old. And they erupted in cheers when she finally put on a sticker that read, “I voted.”
Ms. Victor’s commitment to casting her ballot is certainly commendable, that is without question. But her example highlights a larger point that’s worth repeating: Desiline Victor – and millions of seniors and people with disabilities like her – should never have to face unnecessary burdens like long lines, inaccessible machines or unusable materials when trying to exercise their constitutional right to vote in the first place.
If we really want to honor Desiline Victor’s commitment to democracy, the Presidential Commission should press for specific, meaningful congressional actions to make sure that the obstacles she faced, and the barriers encountered by other seniors and voters with disabilities alike, quickly become stories we read about only in history books, not as the lead story in post-election newspapers or anecdotes in high profile Presidential speeches.
Clyde Terry is a member of the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency that advises the President, Congress and other federal agencies about disability policy and the Chief Executive Officer of Granite State Independent Living in Concord, NH.