Earlier this year, independent nonprofit and public policy organization Pew Charitable Trust exposed Kathy Hoell’s long-term struggle of voting with disabilities. Poll workers in Nebraska took Hoell to stairs. She uses a wheelchair. Hoell was also told that she was not smart enough to vote, leading to the conclusion that she is a second-class citizen.
Like Hoell, voters with disabilities face barriers all over the United States. Polling places may be inaccessible for many reasons, including a lack of ramps, broken elevators, no disabled parking or doors that are too narrow for wheelchairs.
These obstacles and others result a significant gap in voter turnout. A Rutgers University study found that in the 2016 election, Minnesotans with disabilities voted at a rate 11.2 percent lower than Minnesotans without disabilities.
National Public Radio (NPR) quotes a U.S. Government Accountability Office finding that only a quarter of all polling places nationwide are entirely accessible for individuals with disabilities. NPR has also determined that nearly a third of voters with disabilities in the United States in the past presidential election said they had problems casting their ballots. Voting rights specialist Michelle Bishop of the National Disability Rights Network described the suppressive effect of voting barriers. “If your polling place is somewhere that you can’t even get in, not only do you sometimes feel like your vote may not matter … but it also feels like people don’t want you to vote, or don’t care if you can.”
Minnesota offers voters with disabilities some options, including curbside voting, when a poll worker brings ballots to voters in their cars, and absentee ballots, which allow voters to submit their ballots early and/or by mail. Absentee voting starts 46 days before an election. But many voters would still prefer to cast ballots in person.
With curbside voting, someone in the vehicle must be able to get the attention of an election official inside the polling facility. People with disabilities may find it difficult to get out of their vehicles and find an election official.
“The fact that there are multiple ways to vote is a convenience,” said Pamela Hoopes, legal director of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid’s Disability Law Center. “But that doesn’t make up for being prevented from exercising your right to vote in person … Many people, with and without disabilities, feel that it’s part of the function of being an active citizen to go to the polling place on Election Day and vote.”
Hoopes said that voting at the polls is “a way of, very concretely, being part of the broader community.” At best, limiting that right in any way makes people feel like they have less of a part in the process, and, at worst, like their voices are not wanted or heard.
“People have the right to choose” how they vote, said Justin Page, an attorney with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid’s Disability Law Center, “and if they want to go to a polling place to cast their ballots … the U.S. Constitution affords them that right.”
This kind of disparity should not exist. But you can help it change. We all, disabled and not, share an obligation to ensure that every eligible Minnesotan can vote.
That is why Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid’s Disability Law Center and the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office are collaborating in a nonpartisan survey of Minnesota polling locations to make sure the polls are accessible to all voters.
Hoopes cited the benefits of volunteering for this project. “It is a very easy, and even enjoyable, way to do something that’s quite important. Equal access to voting is critical to the functioning of a democracy.”
Between August 7 and 14, volunteers will visit polling places around Minnesota and completing surveys that address issues such as disabled parking, accessible building entrances and interior paths to the voting areas. Volunteers attended training sessions prior to the surveys.
The surveys will help Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid and the Secretary of State’s Office identify and remove the barriers that may inhibit Minnesotans with disabilities from voting. The Secretary of State’s staff will notify the polling locations of the survey results so barriers to voting can be removed before the November election.
Two training sessions were held in July. Legal Aid will also travel anywhere else in the state to conduct training sessions if there are at least five people willing to attend the session. Anyone interested in volunteering or would like to schedule a training may contact Kirsten Olson, Legal Aid’s Pro Bono Director, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-Sara Rex will be a senior this fall at Breck School who has spent the past two summers volunteering at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid as an honors junior advocate, working with attorneys for underserved groups of people in Minnesota.