Voter Turnout, Voting Difficulties,
And Disability In The 2000 Elections:
Laying A Challenge At Democracy's Door
American democracy rests on the participation of the citizenry in the selection of elected officials. By choosing their representatives, citizens express their views about what matters to them and what should be done about it.
Not every American citizen has an equal opportunity to cast a ballot, however. Many thousands of voters and potential voters are disenfranchised by barriers to electoral participation.
These barriers are a threat to the potential of our democracy to realize its promise of equality and justice for all. When some voters cannot participate in an equal footing, all Americans lose. When some citizens are left out, democracy suffers.
For many disabled citizens, elections represent another example of society's inaccessibility. This report is intended to clarify the experiences of people with disabilities in American electoral politics.
To investigate the relationship between voter turnout, voting difficulties, and disability, a national random-household telephone survey of 1,002 American citizens of voting age was conducted through the Rutgers Center for Public Interest Polling following the November, 2000 elections. A broad definition of disability was used, based on questions from the 2000 Census. For more meaningful comparisons the sample was stratified so that interviews were conducted with 432 people with disabilities and 570 people without disabilities. Survey respondents were asked standard questions about voting, voter registration, and factors that could help explain turnout and registration. They were also asked questions concerning actual or expected difficulties in voting at a polling place, and views of several voting methods often used by people with disabilities.
The General Accounting Office released a report on November 14, 2001 finding that only 16% of polling places in 2000 had no potential impediments to access by people with disabilities. This fact sheet complements the GAO study by providing individual-level information on the voting experiences of people with disabilities, with comparisons of voter turnout, voting difficulties, and views of curbside voting between people with and without disabilities.
People with disabilities were on average about 12 percentage points less likely than those without disabilities to vote, after adjusting for differences in demographic characteristics (age, sex, race, education, and marital status). This was an improvement over the 1998 elections, in which people with disabilities were about 20 percentage points less likely than people without disabilities to vote (based on a similar survey following the 1998 elections).
If people with disabilities voted at the same rate as those without disabilities, there would have been 3.2 million additional voters in 2000, raising the overall turnout rate by 1.7 percentage points.
Implications of Findings
The research summarized here contains both good news and bad news. The good news is that "the disability gap" -- the difference in participation rates between individuals with disabilities and nondisabled individuals -- may be narrowing. In the 2000 presidential election, the gap was 12 percentage points (compared to 20 percentage points in the 1998 election). This should increase politicians' attention to the views of people with disabilities.
Unfortunately, Americans with disabilities continue to experience and anticipate difficulties in voting. Three million citizens with disabilities have encountered problems in voting, or would expect to encounter problems. If impediments were removed and people with disabilities began voting in the same proportion as other Americans, fully 3.2 million more people would be casting ballots. Policymakers must take immediate and effective steps to remove the barriers to participation for individuals with disabilities.These findings lay a challenge at democracy's door. The stability and responsiveness of any democracy depends on its ability to fully represent its citizens. America must find the will to open democracy's door to all.
The authors have conducted a number of studies about voting access and persons with disabilities.
Kay Schriner, Ph.D., Department of Political Science
The Trace R&D Center was formed in 1971 to address the communication needs of people who are nonspeaking and have severe disabilities. Its director is Gregg Vanderheiden.
Trace Research and Development Center
OTHER ITEMS OF INTEREST:
The following sites contain information that may be of interest. Please bear in mind that the information at these sites is not controlled by the Center for An Accessible society. Links to these sites do not imply that the Center supports either the organizations or the views presented.
The Project on Disability Politics at the University of Arkansas looks at political participation of people with disabilities, voting rights laws affecting people with disabilities and disability in American campaigns and elections.