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Voting in America

BY WILLIAM G. STOTHERS

Snow had been falling since early afternoon and it was dark by the time I returned home. The neighborhood glowed in a way I had not yet seen in the few months I had been living here in the first house I had ever purchased. It was the dinner hour but my street was busy. Election day brought out voters intent on casting their ballots before the polls closed.

After checking in at home, I too headed up the street to the polling booth. I was feeling righteously civic, honoring my duties of citizenship, a new homeowner jamming his roots a little deeper into the rapidly approaching winter ground.

But a nagging ominous feeling overtook me as I rolled into the front yard of the house where I was to vote. Lights and voices warmed the indoors with community as I sat in the falling snow at the foot of the front steps in my power wheelchair, wondering how I was going to make my way to complete my civic obligation.

Finally I caught another dedicated citizen headed up the steps and asked her to send out a poll official. In a few minutes, someone appeared, a little chagrined and uncertain. There was no ramp. Could I walk? No. Could they carry me inside? No. Well, they could, they supposed, bring a ballot out to me….

So there I sat in the cold, snow drifting down on me, marking my ballot in the dim light from the house windows and porch. The experience was not one I wished ever to repeat.

I cast that vote a long time ago in Toronto. But the sad truth is that obstacles are still all too common to people with disabilities in Canada -- and in the United States.

Shea Hales went to vote in Bryan, Texas a few years ago, but found no accommodations for wheelchair users. Hales was handed a ballot and directed to a table in the midst of other voters coming and going to their private and secure voting booths.

Lolly Liejewski, who is blind, says that when she goes to the polls in St. Paul, Minnesota, she has to have an election judge from each party assist her in voting.

One reads the ballot to her and marks it as the others watch. Usually, she says, the individual reads in a loud voice and repeats her responses so that anyone in earshot will know who she has voted for.

If Ms Liejewski lived in Rhode Island she would have more privacy. Jim Dickson of the National Organization on Disability's voting project says that Rhode Island will become the first state in the union to offer a secret ballot to voters who are blind or have low vision or print disabilities.

Rhode Island notwithstanding, voters with disabilities will encounter barriers to the ballot across the nation. The National Voter Independence Project found during the 1998 Congressional election that as many as 30 percent of polling places were not accessible. Another 11 percent lacked signs to the accessible entrances.

But many advocates think that number is too low. Just in Philadelphia, for instance, only 42 out 1,681 polling places are said to be accessible.

Perhaps that helps to explain why only 30 percent of disabled citizens voted in the 1996 presidential election, 20 percentage points less than non-disabled individuals.

If people with disabilities had voted at the same rate as non-disabled voters in 1996, five million more votes would have been cast. All together approximately 23.5 million people with disabilities did not vote in 1996. And another 9 million or so are not even registered to vote.

It gets worse. A study by Kay Schriner of the University of Arkansas noted that 44 states disenfranchise some people with disabilities, using such terms as "idiot" and "insane persons."

Justice For All, a disability advocacy group, says that disabled voters sometimes are harassed, embarrassed or patronized by election officials; face delays in voting because poll workers don't know where the accessible entrance is located; and are unsure if an official's recording of their vote is even accurate.

How can we make this better? Removing barrier from the polling places and providing ballots in alternative formats would be a good start. But let's remember that people with disabilities can be just as disaffected from the political process as anyone else. Add on the problems we expect in trying to get to polls and cast our ballot … well, you get the picture.

But I will be there. My polling place is accessible. And I can safely predict that it won't snow on me, too. Now that I live -- and vote -- in Southern California.

 

 

 

 

 

EXPERTS:

Kay Schriner and Douglas Kruse 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)
kays@comp.uark.edu

Douglas Kruse, School of Management and Labor Relations
Rutgers University
732-445-5991
dkruse@rci.rutgers.edu


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
info@trace.wisc.edu

 

 


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.

"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 http://trace.wisc.edu/world/kiosks/ez/voting/

The National Organization on Disability's "Getting Out The Disability Vote" campaign has background and commentary http://www.nod.org/vote2000/vote2000.html

 
 
 

 

 

Overview

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Voting in America -- commentary

Accessible voting machines

Polling sites remain inaccessible

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