New election laws could create barriers for voters with disabilities

WASHINGTON – Teri Saltzman said she took her time to look over her ballot at home in Pflugerville, Texas, during the state's recent primary, using specialized glasses that magnified the small print.

But Saltzman, who is legally blind, still missed the lines on the envelope flap that required her to fill in identification numbers needed for election officials to count her vote.

“To this day, I am unsure that my vote was counted,” said Saltzman, 59.

The addition of the lines was among the election changes lawmakers approved last year in Texas – one of several states where advocates say new laws could have an outsized impact on voters with disabilities. They worry that stricter identification requirements, restrictions on voting by mail, reducing the number of drop boxes and other changes could hurt access for people with disabilities in local and midterm elections.

“We're not usually the target of voter suppression. Often people with disabilities just get caught in the crosshairs,’’ said Michelle Bishop, voter access and engagement manager for the National Disability Rights Network.

Concerns about the fallout from those new laws come after turnout among voters with disabilities surged in the 2020 election. As election officials took steps to make the election safer during the pandemic, they also made it easier for people with disabilities to vote.

Nearly 62% of eligible voters with disabilities cast ballots in the 2020 election, up from about 56% in 2016, according to researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey. In all, about 17.7 million people with disabilities voted in 2020.

The share of people with disabilities who reported having a problem voting dropped from 26.1% in 2012 to 11.4% in 2020, according to the Rutgers study. Among voters who did not have a disability, it dropped from 7.4% to 6.4%.

But advocates fear those improvements have been short-lived. Several states adopted new voting restrictions in part in response to former President Donald Trump's false claims about a stolen 2020 presidential election.Opponents of those laws argue conservative lawmakers want to make it harder for people of color and other marginalized voters – who tend to vote Democratic – to vote after Democrats unexpectedly won states like Georgia and Arizona.

Supporters of the new laws, however, say they protect against voter fraud and aim to restore confidence in the election process.

“Those concerns are misplaced,” Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C., said of advocates.

He said many of the laws, including ones requiring more identification, led to higher voter turnout in states like Georgia and Indiana in part because voters had more faith in the system.

''There's this, unfortunately, generally high mistrust of the election process these days by members of both parties,'' von Spakovsky said. "The more you put in measures that are intended to correct that I think that actually helps turnout.''

Lilian Aluri, REV UP voting campaign coordinator for the American Association of People with Disabilities, said the barriers aren't necessarily new.

"But they are having a substantial impact on people with disabilities and they really are taking us backwards from some of the progress made in 2020," Aluri said.

More: ‘A new American fault line’: How new election laws will make it harder for 55 million to vote

More states limited voting access after 2020

In the wake of the 2020 presidential election, advocates said more states adopted laws that limit access for voters with disabilities, including restrictions on curbside voting and voting by mail, cutting back on early voting, limitations on ballot drop boxes and new identification requirements.

“We're seeing widespread pushback,'' said Bishop.

In 2021 alone, elected officials in 19 states – including Arizona, Texas, Georgia and Florida – adopted new voting restrictions, according to the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice.

“These laws will make it harder for a person to cast a ballot and anything that imposes another barrier, I think, is undermining democracy,’’ said Jasleen Singh, counsel in Brennan’s Democracy Program.

Singh pointed to a new law in Texas that requires people assisting disabled voters to sign an oath limiting how much they will help, such as only reading the ballot or directing how to mark the ballot. Singh said the measure doesn’t take into account what may be the needs of a voter.

“That sort of ignores the vast diversity of the kind of help that a person with a disability may need to cast a ballot,’’ she said.

The Brennan Center is challenging the law under the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Another proposal in Alaska would have made it a crime to possess a ballot of someone other than a family member. People helping disabled voters aren’t always family, Singh said.

Voters with disabilities and elderly voters, particularly those living in nursing homes, have long used mail-in ballots, Singh said. That surged during the pandemic.

She called new laws restricting mail-in voting "an all-out assault'' that could affect every voter. "But I think that because mail voting is so popular amongst elderly voters, amongst voters with disabilities, it's especially going to be felt by them,” she said.

While sweeping federal voting rights legislation has stalled in Congress, the Biden administration has pledged to expand access for voters, including those with disabilities. Vice President Kamala Harris met with disabled voters last year and has participated in events to raise awareness.

Last March, the White House issued an executive order directing the federal government to promote voting access.

“Disabled Americans often face unique challenges in exercising their freedom to vote,’’ Harris said last month. “In 2020, disabled Americans were almost twice as likely to experience problems while voting than other populations. And I think we all know and agree this is completely unacceptable.’’

More: Voting rights activists are pushing to speak the language of all voters. It's not always English.

Disabled voters face many barriers

Access to voting information can also be a huge hurdle, advocates said. Voters whose primary language is American Sign Language or those who have an intellectual disability, for example, can struggle with material that is only available in written English and not in plain language.

State and local election websites sometimes are not accessible or don't have adequate information about accessibility at polling places or for other voting methods, she said.

Molly Broadway, voting rights trainer at Disability Rights Texas, said it's a misconception that all voters with a disability prefer to vote by mail.

Her organization fought against the Texas law that made those helping individuals with ballots sign an oath saying they weren't compensated. Personal attendants and caregivers are paid to help people with disabilities with tasks that include voting, Broadway said.

During the Texas primary, poll workers were confused about what assistance a voter could receive under the new law, she said.

“They’re trying to figure all of this out and follow all of their guidelines and not doing anything wrong at the same time," she said. “Everyone is on pins and needles trying to make sure they’re doing what they can to help voters but not putting their butt on the line.”

In Florida, new limitations that made it harder for third-party organizations to collect voter registration forms also made it more difficult for people with disabilities to register, said Olivia Babis, Disability Rights Florida senior public policy analyst.

Florida has an accessible online voter registration form, but Babis said people without internet access often register at public events where those organizations host drives.

In March, a federal judge struck down parts of the new Florida law, calling it a form of suppression.

All 67 Florida counties will be required to have an accessible vote-by-mail program in 2022, she said, but it will be up to election supervisors in each county to implement it.

“There’s not going to be equity in how people are informed about this," she said.

More: Laws aimed at voter suppression are ‘the worst’ since Jim Crow. How Black voter trends could be impacted.

'I just think it's crazy'

Voters with disabilities continue to have access to the polls, supporters of the new laws said.

There are many ways to return absentee ballots and limitations on drop boxes doesn’t prevent someone with disabilities from voting, said von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation.

“For someone who's really physically disabled, it's a heck of a lot easier to just simply put it in the mail than to try to get somewhere down the road to a drop box,’’ von Spakovsky said.

He said some new laws include provisions that will protect disabled voters, such as the one in Texas that requires a person assisting a voter to fill out a form and pledge to not tell them who to vote for.

He called the federal Department of Justice’s claim that the law interferes with voters who need assistance an ''absurd argument.”

"I just think it's crazy,'' he said. “It actually helps. It helps the disabled."

Lisa Schur and Douglas Kruse, of Rutgers University, said their research shows expanding voting by mail and drop boxes and extending deadlines for early voting and voter registration contribute to increased turnout among voters with disabilities.

Turnout rates among voters with disabilities has been lower than those who do not have disabilities, according to their research.

“It’s not apathy. That’s not what’s causing the gap," Schur said. "So it sure seems that inaccessible voting systems are contributing to this gap, whether it’s in person or voting by mail.”

More: Absentee ballots in last week's election were handled inconsistently across Wisconsin after a state Supreme Court ruling

Advocates watching Wisconsin voting rights case

Advocates are watching for a state Supreme Court ruling in Wisconsin where the practice of allowing someone to mail or drop off a voter's absentee ballot is being challenged. Advocates worry there could be similar challenges in other states.

"We've seen proposals in states like Texas, Wisconsin now that are looking at limiting who can assist you with your ballot, who can help you return your vote-by-mail ballot, who can assist you with delivering (a ballot at) a long-term care facility,’’ said Bishop of the National Disability Rights Network.

Many people with disabilities in Wisconsin rely on someone to mail or return their absentee ballot and use drop boxes, said Barbara Beckert, director of external advocacy at Disability Rights WISCONSIN.

Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court let stand a lower court ruling that voters can't give their ballots to someone else to deliver for them. The ruling went into effect for the April 5 local elections.

“It was just a huge mess,’’ said Beckert. “We told people call your clerks and ask for an accommodation. Some clerks accommodated voters, others did not. It definitely disenfranchised people.”

Beckert said her organization fielded many calls to its voter hotline. Some were confused about whether their ballots could be dropped off by someone else. Some didn’t vote at all because they couldn’t do it themselves, Beckert said.

Supporters of the ban, however, argue there's little proof that voters with disabilities will be harmed.

“There's an element of gaslighting,’’ said Rick Esenberg, founder, president and general counsel of the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which is representing two residents in the case. “If this were about, and only about, disabled voters that problem could be easily fixed. What this case really is about is about whether or not we must have a regime in Wisconsin where paid partisans essentially or activists are permitted to go out and collect an absentee ballot. I think that's what the Legislature doesn't want.’’

A court decision is expected by the summer.

More: Electoral Count Act: What is it, how did it play a role in the 2020 election and Jan. 6, and why are there calls to change it?

'We're just overlooked'

Disability activists in other states worry conservative-learning legislatures will pass more restrictive laws.

Kimberly Tissot, CEO of Able South Carolina, said her organization and others successfully fought against a state measure last year that would have added restrictions to mail-in voting.

“It’s an ongoing fight,’’ said Tissot, whose group advocates for disability rights and equity. “When people talk about voting they don't talk about everyone who has the right to vote. So they're not looking at the barriers that the community naturally experiences, that no one else is really focusing on. We're just overlooked.’’

Tissot said one in three people in South Carolina have a disability. Transportation is a major barrier for many.

Tissot said there should be more attention paid to electronic voting.

“That would be more accessible for people with disabilities honestly because there are just so many barriers within the community, within the polling sites themselves and then with the underlining barriers such as transportation,’’ she said.

Meanwhile, some voters are still navigating barriers at the polls.

Dori Tempio was disappointed when she went to her polling site in Columbia, South Carolina, a few years ago. The booth wasn’t wide enough for her motorized wheelchair and the voting machine was too high for her to reach the buttons.

She was even more disappointed when an election official set her up to vote at a table in the middle of the room. There was no curtain for privacy.

Tempio complained but said officials told her they would set up space in another room in future elections.

“It was either that or I couldn't vote,’’ said Tempio, 51, who describes herself as a “proud voter’’ since she was 18 years old. ‘‘I decided it was more important to vote… I told them I shouldn't be having to make this choice.”

It wasn’t the first time Tempio faced hurdles in voting. And over the years she’s watched election officials and poll workers try to turn away others with special needs.

“I'm not shy and I'm like ‘That's people's right,'’’ said Tempio, who said she sometimes explains laws to poll workers. “They eventually got it, but it took me having to be vocal.”

More: 30 years after the ADA, access to voting for people with disabilities is still an issue

Laws to protect voters

Some advocates said poll workers and election officials need to be better trained about federal laws protecting voters with disabilities.

Under a provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, voters with disabilities who need assistance to cast a ballot can get help from whomever they chose except an employer or union representative.

The Americans with Disabilities Act also provides protections for voters with disabilities.

Democratic Rep. G.K. Butterfield, who chairs the House subcommittee on elections, said many people don’t realize there’s a large concentration of voters with disabilities and that their needs are sometimes overlooked.

“If you're cutting back on early voting hours, if you're cutting back on absentee (voting), …that has a profound impact on the disabled population,’’ he said.

Some voters hope for more access.

Reba Landry, who is legally blind, waited nearly three hours with her seeing-eye dog to vote in Greenville, South Carolina, in 2020. It helped when she got to the booth that there was an audio component. She cast her vote in private and independently.

Landry, 41, hopes that in future elections she can vote at home perhaps through accessible online voting or mail-in ballots.

“We shouldn't have to have somebody there to do it for us,’’ she said.

She plans to register for a webinar to learn more about state election changes.

“Every time we have an election…things tend to change so much,’’ said Landry, adding that no matter what she intends to vote. “It’s important – it just is.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Voting rights for disabled people under attack from new election laws

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