Editorial: Another kind of voter access
COPY DESK CHIEF
A wheelchair ramp without a pathway, surrounded by grass. A heavy door with a small, circular knob. A van-accessible parking space with an obstructed access aisle. At a polling place, these conditions can stand between a citizen and their ability to vote. In effect, they rig our election — against people with disabilities.
By combatting inaccessible poll conditions, Widener University Delaware Law School’s ADA Voter Access Project hopes to protect the democratic rights of all Americans. Through their partnership with Community Legal Aid Society’s Disabilities Law Program, I was able to visit six polling places this Election Day and survey everything from sidewalk ramp “curb cuts” to the height of their sign-in tables. Carrying a badge from the Delaware Department of Elections, I assessed the compliance of Newark schools and firehouses with Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
The ADA, passed in 1990, intends to protect the full participation of people with disabilities in their state and local political processes. Still, illness and disability were the major contributing factors to keeping 43.5 percent of eligible voters away from the polls in 2012, according to PBS. Bloomberg reported that nearly half of all elderly non-voters said health reasons kept them from the polls. Over 30 percent of people with disabilities reported experiencing at least one voting difficulty in the last presidential election, compared to 8.4 percent of people without disabilities.
Almost 20 percent of the U.S. population has a disability, and the disability community is the only minority group that anyone can join at any time. Discrimination against people with disabilities may stem from intense prejudices, uninformed ableism, or in some cases, well-intentioned mistakes. In each case, it is unacceptable.
Waiting in line for hours, misunderstanding the voting machine, straining to read the ballot in poor lighting — all of these Election Day activities aren’t just inconveniences. Accommodation is not about “special treatment.” It’s about justice.
The 2002 Help America Vote Act expanded on decades of disability rights legislation and mandated accessible voting systems and a private, independent ballot for all citizens. However, laws are only as good as their enforcement.
Compliance to these laws means great care by our nation’s poll workers, as well as our nation’s citizens without disabilities. I saw multiple voters today lift a woman in a wheelchair from the street to the sidewalk when a ramp appeared too far away. When our regulations failed, our compassion, empathy and good will did not. In this and every election, we need both to truly guarantee every eligible voter with the right to vote.
A reachable handrail. A clear marker signaling parking and pathway access. A doorway at least 32 inches wide. Many of us take these conditions for granted. But if we care about stopping a “rigged” election, we need to appreciate them for what they are — safeguards of our democracy.
Ellie Halfacre serves as The Review’s copy desk chief. She is a senior studying international relations and public policy, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.