Report: Voters with disabilities are treated like "second-class citizens" at the polls


Kathy Hoell has been living with disabilities for 35 years and the lack of accessibility at polling stations still irks her. After a traumatic brain injury, she now uses a wheelchair, with limited use of her right side, no use of her left side and the inability to write or handle papers.

"So, I am one of those people that has to use the machine in the polling place," said Hoell, a Nebraska-based voting rights advocate for the National Council on Independent Living, a disability advocacy group. But some poll workers' lack of eagerness to help her participate in the democracy hasn't improved much in three decades, she said in a phone interview Thursday.

"I was like a second-class citizen and I found that out almost immediately," Hoell said. "I'm entitled to a private, unassisted ballot. But sometimes they stick me at a machine in the middle of the room, with no privacy curtains."

With less than 40 days to go before the Nov. 8 general election, advocates like Hoell are sounding the alarm about the lack of universal accessibility at U.S. polling stations that make individuals with disabilities feel like an afterthought. A new analysis of voter accessibility data by the disability advocacy group Ruderman Family Foundation reveals that impediments to entering polling locations, difficulty obtaining absentee ballots, inadequate training of poll workers, a lack of privacy while voting, among other problems, plague an estimated more than 3 million eligible voters with disabilities. If unaddressed, advocates say, these issues could impact nearly a quarter of voters this fall.

Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images

In a white paper released by the foundation on Sept. 26, experts' analysis of voter data suggests that as many as 10% of people with disabilities report difficulties trying to register to vote or obtain an absentee ballot, which eliminate the need to travel to polling locations.

"It is fundamentally unfair for 20% of the American voting population to face barriers to a full and fair participation in their right to cast a vote," Jay Ruderman, president of the foundation, said in a press release. "America should and can do better to include people with disabilities in our elections."

This problem typically arises during presidential election years, even though there are laws requiring accessible voter services for people who use wheelchairs, people with seeing and hearing impairments and those with mental illness. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, historic federal legislation that established the right of poll access for people with physical or mental disabilities, among other anti-discrimination protections, laid the groundwork for the Help America Vote Act. That measure, enacted in 2002, brought about the widespread use of electronic voting machines to guarantee that voters with disabilities had a private and independent balloting experience.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

But according to the foundation's white paper, data from the 2012 presidential election show that 30% of voters with disabilities who cast ballots reported problems doing so, compared to 8% of all other voters. In 2008, 73% of polling stations had a potential impediment to voting for people with disabilities. Approximately 27% of U.S. states can bar people with mental or developmental disabilities from casting ballots.

"All in all, it is projected that over 3 million people with disabilities are unable to vote in U.S. presidential elections simply because they have a disability," read a press statement released with the white paper.

The Lawyers' Committee of Civil Rights Under Law's Election Protection division documented accessibility issues as recent as the presidential primaries in April. In Lebanon, Pennsylvania, one voter told an election monitor that a poll worker assisting her husband, who lives with a developmental disability, appeared to have made voting decisions for him before he could state which candidate he wanted to vote for. In Providence, Rhode Island, another voter with disabilities told the committee that she and her husband had difficulty climbing a steep hill to get to their polling place.

Hoell said she knows these problems all too well. Her brain injury left her directionally challenged, which means she can find her way into a room, but sometimes needs help finding the exit. Once, she had asked a poll worker for directions to the exit and the poll worker pointed Hoell, who uses a motorized wheelchair, to a stairway.

"I said something very sarcastic, like, 'Really? The chair doesn't do well on stairs,'" Hoell said in the phone interview.

Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images

Poll workers have responded to Hoell's injury-related speech impediment by assuming she is not eligible to vote, she added. "They think I'm not smart enough, even though I've got two bachelor's degrees and a master's — all which I acquired since I became disabled," Hoell said.

In order to improve conditions for the fall, even if marginally so, poll workers should be receiving the needed training now, Hoell added.

Authors of the white paper concluded, "It is the duty of our democratic system to end the institutionalized discrimination against people with disabilities and focus on ensuring that each citizen has guaranteed access to a private and independent ballot in whichever manner they choose to cast it."