Voting While Mobility Impaired

When I didn’t vote in the 2012 presidential election, I made up a bunch of excuses to tell my friends and classmates when they asked me if I’d voted. I told them I wasn’t registered (I was), that I figured Massachusetts was going to go blue anyway (it did), and that I didn’t have time to wheel over to a voting area (I did). Why did I tell my friends such nonsense—or, better, why didn’t I just lie and said that I had voted, particularly when all of them gave me hell for not voting?

The reason I didn’t vote in 2012 was because the first time I voted post-injury, in 2009, there wasn’t a wheelchair-friendly voting option available. At that time I was living in New York. My dad brought me to the nearest voting area, which was a school about a block away from our house. We found the main entrance easily, but it had steps, so we followed a series of signs with handicapped symbols and arrows on them. These led to a creaky and narrow ramp (which I’m pretty sure was not up to code) through a back entrance into the school.

Once we got to the voting booth area, we realized that my dad would have to vote for me, because I couldn’t reach everything in the voting booth. Someone who worked at the voting center offered to help me vote, but I felt far more comfortable with my dad voting for me than with the voting center person. I know that they’re supposed to be unbiased (heck, my uncle has volunteered at voting centers before, and he’s told me all about how they have to be objective), but you never know. Although I was annoyed about the whole situation, I was okay with this particular instance. My dad knows my political views pretty well, and I had expressed my interest in voting for “The Rent is Too Damn High” party on multiple occasions (because it’s NYC, and the rent really is too damn high). He helped me vote, and then we went back down the sketchy back entrance of the school, down the rickety ramp, and back home.

But I didn’t want to do this three years later in Massachusetts. I didn’t want to bring a friend into the voting booth with me and: 1. Tell them who I was voting for, and 2. Have my ballot no longer be a secret just because I couldn’t reach some parts of the voting booth. If you think this is a violation of my privacy, it is. Who I vote for should be nobody’s business except my own.

And so I didn’t vote in 2012. No Obama. No Romney. None of that. I saw all of my able-bodied friends with their patronizing “I Voted” stickers, and decided that it was best to hide in my dorm room until the polls closed.

I didn’t do my part as a citizen (sorry, America), and looking back, perhaps I should have tried voting. Just because one voting area is inaccessible doesn’t mean that they all are. If a place is going to be set up as a voting area, the people setting it up can access a handy ADA checklist to check their accessibility. Do places actually follow these guidelines? It’s not clear. The place I went to in 2009 certainly didn’t.

But polling places need to follow the ADA checklist, because my disability should not prevent me from voting. Seriously, it’s the law, and it’s been that way for decades.

If I may provide a super brief legal history of voting with a disability (which basically paraphrases information from the link above):

  • The Voting Rights Act of 1965: Among other things, this law permits assisted voting (this is basically the term for what my dad did for me when I voted in 2009).
  • The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984: Requires accessible polling places in federal elections for the elderly and disabled, or some alternate means of voting.
  • The National Voter Registration Act of 1993: Encourages people with disabilities to register to vote (so, not much to do with accessible polling places, but lots to do with getting people with disabilities to be in a position where they can vote).
  • The Help America Vote Act of 2002: Requires at least one accessible voting system for people with disabilities at each polling place in federal elections.

I love laws like these, because while they sound great, I have absolutely no idea how they’re enforced. Are they similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act, where people with disabilities are responsible for suing a location for non-compliance? It appears so. According to ADA.gov, “The ADA requires that public entities ensure that people with disabilities can access and use their voting facilities.” This means that there is no federal agency that actively goes around and checks facilities for access compliance. Rather, people with disabilities need to check their nearest polling places to ensure that they’re accessible, and are relied on to sue these locations if they are not. (Note: Although I’m mostly discussing issues that pertain to wheelchair users, those with non-mobility impairments also deal with inaccessible polling places. I’m not forgetting about you; I just don’t know enough about the situation to write confidently about it.)

What’s a wheelchair-user to do when they want to vote, don’t want to deal with litigation, and know that the nearest polling place isn’t going to get their accessibility act together?

  1. Assisted voting: It’s not glamorous and it violates your privacy, but at least it gets your vote in.
  2. Fill out an absentee ballot: While this is a perfectly acceptable option, it has to be done ahead of time. It requires sending an application to your County Election office, and then mailing that ballot once you receive it. Again, totally fine, plenty of people do it (1 in 5 as of 2014), but there are some risks. NPR reported in 2014 that over a quarter of a million of absentee ballots were rejected in the 2012 election. The reasons for this range from the ballot not arriving on time (either the voter’s fault or that of the postal service) to issues with the voter’s signature not matching the one on file at the DMV. If I want my vote to be counted, I have a much better shot if I just go to the polling center on Election Day.
  3. “Curbside voting”: In some cases, if a polling place isn’t accessible, election administrators will allow someone, who would otherwise be unable to enter a polling place, to vote outside the building or in their car. This process has so many steps that I’m just going to copy and paste this from the ADA website:

“In order to be effective, however, the curbside voting system must include:
(1) signage informing voters of the possibility of voting curbside, the location of the curbside voting, and how a voter is supposed to notify the official that she is waiting curbside;
(2) a location that allows the curbside voter to obtain information from candidates and others campaigning outside the polling place;
(3) a method for the voter with a disability to announce her arrival at the curbside (a temporary doorbell or buzzer system would be sufficient, but not a telephone system requiring the use of a cell phone or a call ahead notification);
(4) a prompt response from election officials to acknowledge their awareness of the voter;
(5) timely delivery of the same information that is provided to voters inside the polling place; and
(6) a portable voting system that is accessible and allows the voter to cast her ballot privately and independently.”

If all polling places were accessible, then we could avoid these messes. Also, I thought about including affidavit ballots in my list above, but those are really more for registration issues (e.g. your name doesn’t appear to be registered when you go to your designated polling place) than accessibility ones.

This year, I’ve sent in an absentee ballot, and am praying that it gets counted in New York. Although I could have, I suppose, voted in person in Massachusetts. Regardless, I am determined to have my ballot counted (because let’s be real, this election could have some terrifying consequences). If I had voted in person, I would have demanded an accessible booth so that I could have cast a private ballot, but it’s entirely possible that the voting place (if it was accessible) would have lacked the booth I required, and the empowering feeling of civic duty that I have right now would vanish. In that case, I would have probably resorted to assisted voting again.  But I hope that our next president will care about the accessibility of voting booths.

 

Valerie Piro is an Ed.M. candidate in Higher Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she studies disability in higher education. She blogs about life with paralysis, and about wheelchair-accessible bakeries.

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