Ready, set, vote! The November 7 general election is drawing near, with polls open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. People with disabilities cast ballots at lower rates than the general population. Advocates hope to see that changed through education and efforts to improve access to voting.
More than 38 million people with disabilities are eligible to vote in the United States. Barriers all too often keep many people from voting, even though they have a right to vote. National Voting Rights Week, September 11-15, was used by the Minnesota Rev Up! campaign to highlight election issues affecting people with disabilities. The campaign September 13 hosted an information session on voting, featuring attorney Justin Page of the Minnesota Disability Law Center.
The Minnesota Disability Law Center helps voters whose rights may have been violated and monitors polling place access. People with disabilities should take the Minnesota Disability Law Center phone numbers with them to the polls, if there are access issues or other problems with voting. The phone numbers are 612-334-5970 or 1-800-292-4150.
Disabled voters can also file complaints under the federal Help American Vote Act or HAVA. The Disability Law Center can represent voters in such cases, Page said. The HAVA form is on the Minnesota Secretary of State website.
2023 is an odd-numbered year and not every community in Minnesota has an election. Voters will be selecting local elected officials and school board members in many communities. Some may be voting on a referendum or specific ballot question on an issue. For example, St. Paul residents will be asked to vote on a 1 percent local option sales tax to fund public infrastructure improvements.
Local elections should not be ignored. Page noted that local issues often have a major impact on residents’ lives. People with disabilities should vote and make their voices heard. An odd-numbered year can also offer a less crowded election experience and more time to learn about elections.
Report access problems
Access problems at polling places need to be reported, to local election officials and if necessary, to the Minnesota Disability Law Center. Polling places need to have clear signage, that goes for parking places, entrances and route to the voting area. Those directions become especially important if a polling place is inside a larger building, such as a school or place of worship.
“Often polling places are not fully accessible,” said Page. That is why surveys of polling places are so critically important. Barriers to voting need to be removed.
Barriers can include a step, steps or a lip on a doorway that is tricky to get over with a walker or wheelchair. Doorway width can be an issue for some wheelchairs and scooters.
One barrier that can come up in public buildings is if things are moved. A head judge is a school once had to ask that lunch carts temporarily blocking the access door be removed.
Non-working door push panels and elevators have caused problems at polling places in the past. Another issue that can come up at public buildings is if doors are programmed to be locked at a specific time, before an election ends at 8 p.m.
Parking is to be signed for voters at a polling place but there are times that others disregard the signs are park for the day to go to work.
The first steps to be taken by a prospective voter are to find out registration status, and to find out where votes should be cast. The Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office can help with those issues, and even provide a voter with a sample ballot for their home community. Go to Elections & Voting
Another question voters should ask is if their communities conduct elections through primaries or ranked choice voting. Primaries, held in August, winnow the field of candidates and help parties choose candidates. In ranked choice voting, voters can opt to rank candidates by numerical choice. Communities with ranked choice voting don’t hold primaries.
Who can vote? Voters must be U.S. citizens. They must be 18 years old on election day. Voters must have been Minnesota residents for 20 days prior to the election. Voters who have completed a felony sentence and are no longer incarcerated can vote.
Voters who are under a guardianship or conservatorship can vote unless a judge has specifically revoked the right to vote. Page said this is one of the most frequently asked election questions at the Disability Law Center.
Voters can register before an election or at the polls. If a voter has moved or changed last names since the last election, that voter must re-register. If a voter has not voted at least once in four years,. be prepared to register to vote again.
Register to vote at the polls
Voters can register up to three weeks before election day, online, by mail or in person
If registering to vote at the polls, a voter should be prepared. Be ready to provide evidence of identity and residency. Specific pieces of information are needed. Some can be shown on a phone or device.
Proof of identity can include a driver’s licenses, state ID or learner’s permit issued by any state; U.S. passport; U.S. military or veteran’s ID; tribal ID with name, signature and photo; Minnesota university, college or technical school ID; or a Minnesota high school ID. These can be expired.
To provide residency in a precinct, be ready to show a bill or start-of-service statement dated within 30 days of the election, these can be for phone, TV or Internet; solid waste, sewer, electric, gas or water; banking or credit card; rent or mortgage. A residential lease valid through election day can be used. So can a current student fee statement.
A voter can also go to the polls with a voter from the precinct who can vouch for the prospective voter. That person should know the voter and know where the voter lives, said Page.
Residents of group homes can go to the polls with a staff member who can vouch for them. The staff member can vouch for an unlimited number of residents. An employer can send a list of residents to an election office 20 days before the election, can provide a letter on company letterhead for the employee or can have the employee show a work ID badge.
Assistance at the polls
Page emphasized that voters are entitled to assistance at the polls that can start with help in signing one’s name. Once a voter signs in or registers, a ballot is provided. An election judge can find assistance for a voter to mark a ballot, either with accessible voting machines or regular voting kiosks.
Voters can bring a helper. Helpers of any type can assist but not influence voting.
In the polling place, various types of machines can be used to mark ballots. What machines have to have in common is a touchscreen feature or Braille keys. Machines can either read a ballot to a voter using headphones, allowing for marking the ballot. The machine also lets a voter turn off a screen for privacy.
Another feature of ballot marking machine s is that they can warn a voter about ballot marking errors. Machines print a voter’s choice on the ballot. But Page noted that voters should be aware that machines can malfunction. Ask the election judges for help if that happens.
Voters can ask for assistance with curbside voting, when election judges take a ballot out to a vehicle, to provide a ballot for voting. The challenge Page noted here is that election judges may not be looking outside. He suggested calling an election office to alert precinct judges that a voter needing curbside voting will arrive at a specific time at the precinct.
Early or absentee voting
Early voting began September 22, Election officials offer a central place or places where votes can be cast. The election office or Minnesota Secretary of state can help assist voters find early voting spots.
Voting by mail is a great convenience but steps must be followed for a ballot to count. If mailing in a ballot, a witness is needed before the ballot is placed in the envelopes and mailed. The witness needs to be either a notary public or a Minnesota registered voter. The voter witness does not have to live in the absentee voter’s precinct.
One option for people with disabilities is an accessible absentee ballot. After requesting an absentee ballot form local election officials, contact the election office. Request an electronic ballot as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. For assistance in finding this information, call 612-872-9363.
After this request is made, county officials are to email the voter a link and instructions for using the Omniballot system. The system is hosted by Democracy Live.
Print the marked ballot, seal it in the small tan secrecy envelope sent with your absentee ballot and then put the secrecy envelope inside the signature envelope. Sign the signature envelope. Voters can have assistance in filling this out. Place the sealed envelope inside the largest envelope and get it into the mail. Make sure it is postmarked by election day.