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Voters With Disabilities Challenged During COVID-19

Casting ballots at home or in person sometimes a difficult decision

A sign for curbside voting

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

En español | John Doll arrived at his Akron, Ohio, early voting polling place at 7 a.m. on Oct. 6, nearly a month before Election Day. But even then, he encountered a long line.

More than 90 minutes into his wait, Doll, 68, blacked out and collapsed. An intrepid voter, he recovered and returned to the line in the autumn chill, only to fall again. This time, paramedics took him to a hospital where he stayed for three days. His doctors would tell him that the episode was likely due to his Parkinson's disease.

Doll is one of a record 38.3 million people with disabilities who are eligible to vote in this fall's election, almost 20 percent more than in 2008. They will constitute close to one-sixth of the total electorate, according to Rutgers University experts.

Resources for Voters With Disabilities

The bipartisan U.S. Election Assistance Commission was created as part of the 2002 Help America Vote Act. Its website features guidance for voters with disabilities.

Election rules vary widely among states and local districts, so the American Association of People with Disabilities offers details.

The National Disability Rights Network, made up of the nation's largest providers of legal advocacy services for those with disabilities, provides links to its state offices.

This is also the first general election in the age of COVID-19, which makes it more challenging than usual for people with disabilities to vote:

  • Electronic voting systems that allow voters with disabilities to cast their ballots from home are available only in certain states. Federal law requires accessible equipment for voting to be available at polling places but not at home.
  • Some voters with mobility or sight issues are less likely to accept offers of rides to the polls, for fear of contracting the virus.

Because of these concerns, like many Americans balancing the issues surrounding the pandemic with their desire to vote, people with disabilities are having to decide between going to the polls or turning to absentee or mail-in ballots.

Finding the best way to vote

Tracy Carcione, who is blind, tried both those options this year in an attempt to find the safest, most accessible way to vote.

Carcione, 59, lives in Teaneck, New Jersey, where the 2020 spring local elections were held by mail. She contacted election officials and got an online electronic ballot that allowed her to vote safely and privately at home.

That ballot, developed by Seattle-based Democracy Live, is being used this fall in 20 states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida, said President Bryan Finney.

But New Jersey didn't offer those electronic ballots for its July presidential primary, so Carcione went to her local polling place.

"There's supposed to be an accessible machine there, but the poll workers don't know how to switch it into accessible mode,” she said. So she had to squeeze in the voting booth in between a Republican poll worker and a Democratic one who helped her vote, not an ideal system in a pandemic — or to preserve privacy.

"All polling locations are required to have accommodations that allow voters to vote independently and privately,” said Bridgett King, an expert in political participation and an associate professor at Auburn University in Alabama.

But a study three years ago found that of 137 polling sites inspected, most had voting stations that could impede private voting. For instance, at stations not designed for wheelchairs, some voters would have to ask for help, thereby potentially allowing others to see how they were voting, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office report.

Voting in the general election proved easier for Carcione, who used an electronic mail-in ballot that she printed out at a United Parcel Service office, since she doesn't have a printer.


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An issue of trust

The dramatic increase in mail-in ballots — catalyzed by worries about COVID-19 — would seem ideal for voters with disabilities.

But some people have to ask for help filling out their ballots and may not be able to verify that it was marked and mailed as they wanted, said Michelle Bishop, voter access and engagement manager at the National Disability Rights Network, a coalition of the nation's largest providers of legal advocacy services for those with disabilities.

"No one should have to make that leap of faith when they're voting,” she said.

Sarah Trites has already cast an absentee ballot in the Nov. 3 election, unhampered by her wheelchair and poor vision.

The 54-year-old resident of Sabattus, Maine, regularly turns to her mother, who lives nearby, to help fill out her ballots. She trusts her mother to record her votes accurately, she said: “She and I are definitely on the same wavelength."

Trites cast her first vote for president in 1984 and has voted in every presidential election since, and in countless other elections, too.

"I'm passionate about voting,” said Trites, who is active in local political and disability groups. Other Maine voters with disabilities share that zeal, with more than 65 percent of them voting in November 2018, the highest share of any state, researchers found.

"All polling locations are required to have accommodations that allow voters to vote independently and privately."

— Bridgett King

West Virginia came in last in 2018, with less than 38 percent of its eligible voters with disabilities casting ballots. It also has the highest rate of disability — nearly 25 percent — of any state.

The state is largely rural, with winding roads, which can discourage all voters, said Regina Desmond, senior advocate at Disability Rights of West Virginia.

Her group scored a major victory with the February 2020 signing of a bill allowing state voters with physical disabilities to vote using electronic absentee ballots.

The first in the state to try the technology was Terra Muncy, 56, of Belle, who has rheumatoid arthritis and has used a wheelchair for 18 years. Voting in person, she sometimes found low ballot stations that worked well, she said.

"But sometimes there wasn't one, which means I was having to reach up, and people can see over your head exactly what you're doing,” she said.

During the spring primary election, Muncy was able to cast her ballot using the Democracy Live electronic system on her tablet while sitting on her front porch.

She recently used the same system for the general election, this time via her phone from her kitchen, since it was too cold outside, she said.

To vote in person, some voters with disabilities may have to take buses or subways, another challenge. Transit to polling places may be particularly taxing for Black and Latino voters with disabilities who may not have access to private or public transportation, said King at Auburn University.

Voting curbside

Doll was undeterred by his blackout and hospital stay. He returned to the Summit County Board of Elections in Akron when he recovered, this time to vote from the comfort of his car.

The board had curbside voting available at the time Doll first tried to vote, but it has expanded the parking sites, added signs about the service and ordered still more signs, said Lance Reed, the board's director.

Doll commended the board staff for bringing a ballot to his car and helping him fill it out, because his hands shook badly, a symptom of Parkinson's. Yet even if he can vote electronically from home, he said, he would still want to go vote curbside.

"I'm old school,” he said of going to a polling place in person. “This makes you feel more normal, rather than handicapped.”

When he finished voting, the staff took the ballot inside to process, he said. “Then they came out and gave me an ‘I voted’ sticker."

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