Elections are critical events for people with disabilities. However, despite having a lot at stake and wanting to vote, access barriers have kept many people with disabilities from participating in elections. An unexpected consequence to the pandemic, the 2020 election became more accessible, which seemed to have boosted voter turnout, a recent study by the Program for Disability Research at Rutgers University and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC) has found.
Thirty-eight million Americans with a disability were eligible to vote in 2020.
Shortly before the election on November 3, 2020, ABILITY Magazine has reported that 38 million Americans with a disability would have theoretically been eligible to vote, according to Rutgers University. People with disabilities made up a large part of all voters in the country – up to 16 percent, so they have a major influence on any political decision. However, until now, we didn’t know how many of these people actually voted.
An additional 1.7 million people with disabilities voted in 2020.
According to a new report by the Program for Disability Research at Rutgers University and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, 17.7 million people with disabilities voted. This number is up from 16 million in 2016. Overall, nearly 62% of people with disabilities voted in 2020, up from 56% in 2016. A higher turnout was reported across all disability types and demographic groups. With an increase of six points, voters with disabilities made history by outpacing the rise of five points among people without disabilities.
Many people with disabilities face access barriers when trying to vote.
Based on a study by the Government Accountability Office conducted during the 2016 election, 60 percent of 178 examined polling stations in the US were found to have one or more access barriers, making it harder or even impossible for people with disabilities to vote. Even though people with disabilities were highly motivated during the 2020 election – a study by Pathfinder on behalf of Easterseals done before the 2020 election discovered that 90 percent of all adults with a disability were registered to vote – they might not have been able to participate in the election without the beneficial circumstances regarding accessibility due to the pandemic.
More access due to COVID.
Something as ‘simple’ as giving people the opportunity to vote by mail goes a long way for people with disabilities. Due to COVID, suddenly, Americans had the option to vote by mail instead of making their choice in person in often inaccessible voting locations. “Despite the barriers that people with disabilities face, they turn out to vote when motivated,” said Distinguished Professor Douglas Kruse, Co-Director of the Program for Disability Research at Rutgers University. “The decrease in voting difficulties over the past eight years is very positive and reflects well on efforts by the Election Assistance Commission and election officials, helping ensure that people with disabilities are fully included in our democracy.”
Mail-in ballots might have made the difference.
Rutgers’ and the EAC’s report found that more than 53% of people with disabilities voted by mail, compared to 42% of people without disabilities. “Turnout increases when people with disabilities have more voting options. It’s not ‘one size fits all,’” said Professor Lisa Schur, Co-Director of the Program for Disability Research at Rutgers University. “Many states made it easier to vote during the pandemic, which particularly helped voters with disabilities.” Additionally, the 23 states that made it easier to vote by mail appeared to have a higher increase in disability turnout, though the difference is within the margin of error.
Voting by mail measurably improved accessibility for people with disabilities.
During this election, an estimated 1.95 million people with disabilities faced hurdles when voting. However, accessibility was tremendously improved during the 2020 elections compared to previous elections – and this can be shown in numbers! An earlier study commissioned by the EAC under clearinghouse and research mandates outlined in the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) found that only 11% of people with disabilities had trouble voting in 2020, compared to 26% in 2012. Of those people who voted by mail, only 5% had issues, but 18% faced hurdles when voting at polling stations.
What happens now?
The EAC says they are encouraged by the reported decrease in barriers and increase in voter participation by people with disabilities. The data released will help them improve and inform resources and guidance materials while measuring the progress made by election officials as they serve voters with disabilities. “Election officials across the country work hard to provide accessible options to voters as they register and vote. We are happy to see that progress is being made, but there is still room for improvement for future elections,” said Donald Palmer, Chairman of the EAC. “This data is critical for officials as they consider new voting technologies, options for voters to cast a ballot, and as they address the growing accessibility needs of an aging demographic. The EAC is continually working to improve accessibility and to ensure an independent and private vote for all.”
All findings will be discussed during a roundtable on the EAC’s YouTube channel.
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