Being a Successful Voter with Disabilities Means Making a Plan
National Disability Voting Rights Week - Guest Blog - Issue 6.
Our final post in this series comes from Gretchen Knauff. Gretchen is currently the Director of the Department of Services for Persons with Disabilities for the City of New Haven, Connecticut. For the past 30+ years, she has been advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities by holding various positions at the Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities, most recently as its Assistant Director. Gretchen helped to establish and became the first Executive Director of Disability Rights Connecticut, the private nonprofit that succeeded the Office of Protection and Advocacy. Gretchen is passionate about the rights of people with disabilities, especially in the areas of voting, supported decision-making, employment, and working toward creating a community where everyone belongs.
In honor of Disability Rights Voting Week, we are proud to be launching our new Resources for Voters with Disabilities initiative. As part of this initiative, U.S. Vote Foundation (US Vote) has created a state-by-state guide to empower voters with disabilities to realize US Vote’s mission: Every Citizen is a Voter. Our new initiative for voters with disabilities will help new and experienced voters navigate the continuous changes in accessibility that have resulted from the recent revisions to election law across the country.
_ _ _
Voting is one of the most important rights, privileges, and responsibilities we have as Americans, regardless of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, and physical or mental ability. Your vote is your voice on who you want to represent you on local, state, and national levels and your voice on issues important to you.
Collectively, all voters including voters with disabilities can influence policies and impact outcomes that affect our families, our children, and our neighbors. For example, electing school board members who understand the needs of children with disabilities can ensure that they receive an appropriate education with peers who do not have disabilities. On the state level, your vote could impact housing policies that mandate better opportunities for accessible, affordable housing or programs that promote competitive, integrated employment for people with disabilities. Nationally, it is more important than ever that people with disabilities vote and make their voices heard.
LET’S MAKE A PLAN TO VOTE
When you want to get together with friends, take a vacation, or participate in other important events in your life, you make plans. The same should be true for voting. Take time to think about how you will find out who is running for what office, whom you want to choose as your candidates, how you will vote, when you are going to vote, and how you will get to the polls. Also, remember to bring proper identification with you! As a voter with a disability, you also need to prepare in case the polling place is not accessible, the poll workers challenge your right to vote, or the accessible voting machine is not working. All these problems happen every year across the country! Know your rights and be ready to advocate for yourself or others on Election Day.
Step 1. Learn about Candidates’ Positions on Issues Relating to the Rights of People with Disabilities. Once you’ve found out who is running, you still have homework to do. Do these candidates care about issues affecting people with disabilities? Do they want to end the subminimum wage for people with disabilities and provide incentives for competitive, integrated employment? Which candidates support programs that increase affordable accessible housing for people with disabilities? How would they ensure the of end segregation of people with disabilities by eliminating institutions? Where do the candidates stand on accessibility of the voting process for people with disabilities? Do they hold your values and believe in creating a society where people with disabilities are valued members of their communities? Will they help people with disabilities truly belong?
There are so many disability-related considerations! The following resources may help:
a. Look on The Candidates’ Campaign Websites. The candidates will generally discuss various issues through posts and informational papers. Send emails if you don’t see your issues addressed. Ask them to answer your questions. Whether you get a response or never hear back from the candidate or their campaign staff may tell you a lot about the candidate.
b. Watch a Local Debate. Television stations or local groups of concerned citizens such as the League of Women Voters sponsor candidate debates. Unfortunately, disability issues are not a hot topic for debates, but you might be able to persuade the debate sponsor to add a well-crafted question that includes background information to help the sponsor understand the issue. Doing so will raise awareness for the candidates and many people watching!
c. Attend a Candidates' Forum on Disability Issues. Disability groups sponsor candidates' forums to focus on the importance of disability issues. At these non-partisan events, people with disabilities, family members, and others who care about disability issues listen to the candidates answer questions about issues critical to the disability community. These forums can show who hasn’t considered disability issues (many), those who did some research (a few), and of course the candidates who have been actively involved in disability issues (yea!). (For voters in Connecticut, our Candidates Forum is October 12, 2022, both in person and virtual!!
d. Email the Candidates with Your Questions. Don’t be surprised if you can’t find a candidate’s position on disability issues. There are several ways to find out: you can call their campaign or send them. If you get an answer, share it with the disability community!! You can also ask a candidate to meet with you and others in an informal setting. But before you extend an invitation to the candidate, be sure to have a small group that is committed to attending the gathering. This is a busy time on the campaign trail and the candidates are more likely to say yes if there is a group rather than just one or two constituents. When the meeting is over, share what you learned about the candidates.
Step 2. Decide on How You will Vote. If this your first-time voting, Congratulations!! The rights of voters with disabilities are protected under both state and federal law. All polling places must be accessible and voters with disabilities must have the ability to cast a ballot independently and privately. This means that there must be an accessible method of voting in each polling place and that method of voting must be set up and ready to be used for the entire election.
Each state is different in how voters cast a ballot: Do you know the different methods of voting in your state? Do you know what is considered the accessible method of voting? Even if you do not need an accessible ballot, know the accessible voting method, and educate others who may need it. It will assist them with preserving their right to cast a ballot independently and privately! That is the best feeling in the world.
Do you need an Absentee Ballot and are you eligible? If you go to the polls, what are the methods of voting in-person? Is there more than one? Do you know how to use them? There are several ways to learn about the different voting methods. Contact your local election officials about the different ways to vote. You can also contact your office of the Secretary of the State or your state’s Protection and Advocacy (P&A) office. For a listing of the P&A offices click here. There’s also a wealth of information from the other guest bloggers in this series and on the US Vote Voting Resources for People with Disabilities initiative page.
Voting by absentee ballot may be a convenient way for voters with disabilities to cast a ballot but voters should be aware of the process of casting an absentee ballot. In some states, you cannot vote by absentee ballot unless you meet certain eligibility requirements. In other states, all the envelopes and signatures required can result in a detailed and confusing process. Be careful that you complete all the steps as instructed and ask questions if you are not sure that you are completing the ballot correctly. Taking the time to ask can be the difference between having your vote counted or having it thrown out. We want every vote to count!
Step 3. Check your Polling Place Location and Accessibility. If you’re planning on voting in-person, planning ahead is essential. Sometimes a polling place location has been changed. It could be that the location was not accessible or is no longer in use. Redistricting is also another reason that you may be voting in a new location. Be sure to use your state website, the REV UP website, or the US Vote website to check. It’s better than showing up to find that the polling place moved to a new location.
Is your polling place accessible? It should be - the law requires it! All voters regardless of disability should be able to vote in person – independently and privately. Even though the law has required accessible polling places for more than thirty years, not all polling places are accessible. Some of the barriers I have encountered when assessing polling places include inadequate accessible parking spaces; a path of travel that is steep or has a cracked surface; a step (ugh!) into a building or a threshold that is too high for a wheelchair to cross; and improper door handles and doors that are too heavy to open. Generally, a polling place location is set up just for the election and many accessibility mistakes can happen at the polling place itself.
Have you found any of these issues when you voted at your polling place? Did it make it harder or even impossible to vote? If you are at the polls and being denied the right to vote because of the inaccessibility of the polling place or process, contact the Office of the Secretary of the State and speak to someone in the Elections Department. Tell them you are still at the polls and are being denied your right to vote due to your disability. There are also Election Protection hotlines that will help – call them! Some protection and advocacy agencies participate in election protection activities and can help connect you to the right officials during the election and with a complaint after the election.
You can also file a complaint after the election with the Office of the Secretary of the State as well as the organizations listed above. It is extremely helpful evidence to have a witness to your complaint. Get the names of the poll workers you deal with at the polls and be as thorough as possible with your complaint.
Step 4. Determine What Time Will You Go to the Polls. This may seem like an insignificant issue to consider now, but if you are like me, and don’t think about it ahead of time, you may find you need some extra time that you no longer have. Voters who need a ride to the polls, need assistance with accessing the polling place, or need extra time to vote should plan their trip to the polls as soon as possible. And if you need extra time to vote, the law allows people with disabilities extra time at the polls.
Step 5. Finding Transportation to the Polls. Voters who need a ride to the polls should plan ahead. Here are some transportation options that may be available in your area:
- Ask a Friend or Neighbor. You and your neighbor will vote in the same location and friends are glad to help if they are available. Just remember to ask early and be flexible with time!
- Bus or Paratransit Service. Many polling places are in areas that are served by public transportation. A local paratransit service will also take you to the polling place if it is on the bus route. If you are not sure, contact the transit company and ask about the route to your polling place and the times that the buses run. If you use the paratransit service, remember to make a reservation.
- Taxi, Uber, or Lyft. These services sometimes give free rides to the polls on Election Day, but you’ll need to do your homework to find out what is available. Uber and Lyft do not have accessible vehicles, but some local taxi companies have accessible vehicles in their fleets.
- Independent Living Centers. There are independent living centers in every state. Some may have an accessible van and be willing to transport voters to the polls if they need accessible transportation. They may also be able to help you arrange transportation. Give them a call!
e. Political Parties, Civic or Religious Organizations sometimes offer rides to the polls. This will vary by state and locality. Check with your local election office and the organizations to find out if they are providing rides to the polls. If you need accessibility and they do not have accessible vehicles, ask if they will pay for an accessible ride to the polling place and back. Regardless, no party or organization can ask you how you plan to vote or require you to vote for their candidates.
Thank you for taking the Make a Plan journey with me. There is nothing more important than voting. It determines so many critical issues related and unrelated to disability. Many legal protections and programs for people with disabilities were established through legislative action and it all started with the people who represent us in those legislatures. Your vote is important – don’t let anyone or anything take it away.
Make a Plan and VOTE!!