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Voter Turnout, Voting Difficulties,
And Disability In The 2000 Elections:

Laying A Challenge At Democracy's Door

Lisa Schur, Ph.D. and Douglas Kruse, Ph.D.
Rutgers University

Kay Schriner, Ph.D. and Todd Shields, Ph.D.
University of Arkansas

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.

READ GAO reportpdf download.

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.

Voter Turnout

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.

Absentee Voting and Voting Difficulties Views About Curbside Voting
People with disabilities were almost twice as likely as other citizens to vote by absentee ballot. Among those who voted, 20% used an absentee ballot, compared to 11% of people without disabilities.
Citizens with disabilities are more likely than those without disabilities to have encountered, or expect, difficulties in voting at a polling place:
 Citizens with disabilitiesCitizens without disabilities
Encountered difficulties, if last voted at polling place since 1990 5.8%2.0%
Would expect difficulties, if haven't voted at polling place since 199032.6%2.9%
Reported problems with voting among people with disabilities are split among getting to the polling place, being able to vote once at the polling place, and general mobility
 Problems encountered if voted in last 10 yearsProblems expected if haven't voted in last 10 years
Any difficulty in voting at polling place5.8%32.6%
Getting to polling place 1.3%5.7%
At polling place (getting inside, using booth/machine, long lines, seeing/understanding ballot)3.5%17.9%
General mobility (walking, standing)0.9%6.3%
Based on these results, an estimated 1.3 million citizens with disabilities encountered problems in voting since 1990 during the last time they voted at a polling place, while an additional 1.7 million citizens who have not voted at a polling place since 1990 would expect to encounter problems. Overall 3.0 million citizens with disabilities either encountered or would expect to encounter difficulties in voting at a polling place.
Respondents were asked their view of whether "voting a ballot in an automobile at curbside" is "just as good as voting in person inside the polling station, or not as good?" Majorities of people with and without disabilities feel that it is not as good:
 Citizens with disabilitiesCitizens without disabilities
Curbside voting is just as good 36.1%36.8%
Curbside voting is not as good 54.9%57.8%
Further information on the survey methodology and other results is available from the authors.

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
University of Arkansas
501-575-6417 (direct)
501-575-3356 (reception)

Todd Shields, Ph.D., Department of Political Science
University of Arkansas
501-575-3356 (reception)

Lisa Schur, Ph.D., School of Management and Labor Relations
Rutgers University

Douglas Kruse, Ph.D., School of Management and Labor Relations
Rutgers University

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.
Gregg Vanderheiden
Trace Research and Development Center
(608) 263-2309



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.

"Voters with disabilities face discrimination nationwide," A report in the November/December 2000 issue of Ragged Edge magazine

The Trace Research & Development Center's efforts to make electronic voting machines easier to use for the average citizen, our aging population and people with disabilities can be found at

The National Organization on Disability's "Getting Out The Disability Vote" campaign has background and commentary






Expert sources

Election reform legislation and access

Voting in America -- commentary

Accessible voting machines

Polling sites remain inaccessible


About The Center for An Accessible Society