Merrick Brings New Voters into Political Process
Anyone who remains skeptical about the importance of voting has not met the participants (clients) of Merrick, Inc. These are people with disabilities who understand the importance of voting; indeed they made voter education and participation their top priority for the recent election.
Located in Vadnais Heights, Merrick is a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit company that provides vocational and social opportunities for adults with developmental disabilities. However, Merrick is doing much more than just helping people find work. Merrick is dedicated to providing support for participants from a holistic approach based on person-centered planning.
Along with the emphasis placed on building vocational skills, Merrick also promotes emotional growth through development of self-advocacy and leadership skills. Colleen Timbers, Merrick’s Program Director, explains that teaching people about voting rights is a great way to achieve these goals. She explains that, contrary to how people with developmental disabilities are often perceived, participants at Merrick know that they need to vote. “They are watching the news. They know what’s going on. They know the candidates and issues and want to exercise their right to vote as a citizen,” Timbers stated.
Voting is such an important right to the individuals at Merrick that they decided to do a get-out-the-vote drive this year. In advance, participants took part in get-out-the-vote training from the Minnesota Disability Law Center, where they received voter registration cards, learned the basics on who is eligible to vote, and made posters to encourage everyone to vote.
Participants were especially excited to learn about the AutoMark voting machine, which the Office of the Secretary of State brought out to Merrick for several demonstrations before Election Day. This year, 206 clients of Merrick were surveyed and 63 of those voted on November 7th. Of these, 24 were new voters and 11 used the AutoMark.
The Election Day experiences of three of these new voters reveal the range of possibilities. Loren and Tricia voted for the first time due to the information they received at the get-out-the-vote trainings. They both had positive experiences at the polling place, where their caregivers provided them the support they needed. In Loren’s case, he had always been told he could not vote because he was under guardianship. However, with the recent changes in the Voter Rights Bill, Loren is now eligible to vote and he exercised that right.
Roberta and Elise both wanted to use the AutoMark when they voted. Roberta’s AutoMark experience went smoothly; she had a positive voting experience. However, when Elise arrived at her polling place, she was told that the AutoMark was not working due to a malfunction. Elise was not discouraged by this news. “I still wanted to vote,” she said, and received the necessary assistance to mark a paper ballot.
Each of these voters demonstrated self-advocacy by exercising their right to vote. All of them indicated that they would encourage people with disabilities to vote because it is their right. “They do have the right to vote, especially if they’re under guardianship and the court order has not revoked the right to vote,” stated Roberta.
Voting will continue to be a priority for Merrick. Timbers explained that even though people may know the importance of voting and want to exercise this right, they continue to need supports to actually vote. She stated that many of the people from Merrick who did not vote this year were erroneously told they couldn’t vote, either because they are not eligible, they couldn’t read the ballot, or because they did not have anyone to help them. Timbers stated that voter education is important and that Merrick will continue to work with groups such as Arc Greater Twin Cities, Minnesota Council of Nonprofits-Minnesota Participation Project, ACT, and the Minnesota Disability Law Center to inform others on the voting rights of people with disabilities.
Timbers said that despite being registered to vote, many people with disabilities do not get the opportunity to actually cast a ballot due to a lack of understanding by their caregivers. Some of these caregivers do not understand their clients’ desire to exercise their civic responsibility to vote. Timbers wants to target caregivers in preparing for the 2008 elections. In addition, she wants to continue providing voter education to the clients at Merrick. Through trainings and conferences, all people can learn how to express their wishes through voting and ultimately become more involved in the political process. “If you vote, you’re involved in choosing people that will make decisions for you that reflect what you care about,” stated Timbers.
Learning about voting rights is not just about candidates and polling places. It is also about something that Merrick deeply values—encouraging people to think for themselves and form opinions about the world around them. Tim from Merrick is a great example of this value. Why does he think it’s important to vote? “For change. There was a shift in seats this election year. So, if you want changes and know that it’s important to vote, then you should vote.”
Congratulations to Merrick for the hard work and success of their 2006 get-out-the-vote drive!