In the months before November, you may have heard your families, friends or co-workers discuss the importance this year’s election. “It is one of the most important elections of our time,” was the phrase used over and over again in the “get out the vote” arena. People from communities of all backgrounds may have felt differently on political issues and candidates, however one thing was clear: Minnesotans feel that the power of the vote is important.
For the Minnesota Disability Law Center (MDLC), getting out the vote meant more than just representation for the disability community. It meant protecting what is often taken away from people with disabilities: the power of choice. This year, many people with disabilities owned that power and used it to their advantage by selecting the leaders of our communities. Through phone calls and e-mails, people with disabilities turned to MDLC as a source of information regarding matters such as how to register, where to vote, what kinds of assistance was available at polling places and how to vote absentee. We encountered questions such as, “My son has a severe developmental disability and cannot read or write, however he wants to vote. What can I do to help him?” and “I use a power chair and have no way of getting to my polling place on Election Day. Can you help me get an absentee ballot?”
Between June and October, 398 individuals with disabilities received training from Protection and Advocacy for Voting Access, MDLC’s program funded by the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA). Out of the 398 who received training, approximately 175 individuals registered to vote.
MDLC also ran a hotline on Election Day. Our attorneys and advocates were ready to provide assistance to our callers and had prepared for the worst. However, overall, the day went smoothly, especially considering the record voter turnout. There were a total of 52 calls from October to November regarding voting issues, and 22 on Election Day. Many of the callers needed information on transportation to the polls, vouching, and guardianship status. Three individuals mentioned they would file a formal HAVA complaint with the Secretary of State due to treatment and/or denial at the polls. You may contact the MDLC Voting Outreach Advocate at 612-746-3716, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org if you feel your experience at the polling place was unfair or if you need assistance filing a formal complaint.
On Election Day, non-profits, attorneys, and advocates from all over the country came together in an effort to protect voter rights and assist with challenges at the polls. Minnesota participated through a non-partisan project called Election Protection Minnesota, which also ran a hotline from mid-October through Election Day. According to their data, Election Protection Minnesota fielded 733 calls to the 1-866-OUR-VOTE hotline between October 15th and November 2nd. On November 2nd, there were 325 calls, mostly regarding polling location, same-day registration, residency requirements for people in transition, requirements for absentee ballots, the rights of ex-felons, vouching, and requests for rides or other special assistance. Eighty-one formal complaint forms were filled out to report voting irregularities on Election Day. Of the 81 complaints, 46 were considered substantive enough to forward to the Election Protection database. The majority of serious complaints were related to unfair challenges at the polls directed particularly at low income people, people of color, homeless individuals and immigrants who were registered to vote using vouchers.
The people of Minnesota should congratulate themselves and celebrate their passion for recognizing the important civic responsibility of voting. Access the Office of the Secretary of State at www.sos.state.mn.us for a list of the newly-elected officials in your area. For more information about your elected officials, access the website of the Minnesota State Legislature at www.leg.state.mn.us. This site can tell you how to contact your state senators and representatives.
What will be the next steps now that the election is over? Voter education does not only occur during an election year. It is equally important for people with disabilities to remain active participants and let elected officials know what issues are important to them. MDLC will continue efforts to mobilize and educate people with disabilities across the state on building bridges between our communities and the individuals who have been elected for the next legislative session. Continue to read Access Press for updates on future community forums scheduled to take place throughout the Metro Area and greater Minnesota. These forums will begin in February 2005, occurring once each month into the summer.
MDLC is also working with the Office of the Secretary of State to ensure that accessible voting equipment is available for the 2006 elections at polling places throughout the state. A committee of representatives from the disability community and the Office of the Secretary of State has been formed to ensure that the most appropriate HAVA-compliant equipment is used to meet the needs of voters of all abilities.
Finally, guardianship law as it pertains to voting is also an item that MDLC will address during the upcoming legislative session. During the recent election cycle we learned that guardianship issues continue to pose questions for many people with disabilities who want to vote but have concerns about whether or not they can. We will discuss these discrepancies with the hope of clarifying the language as it is written in the statute.
In the meantime, we encourage all individuals with disabilities to continue to remain informed and participate! As Justin Dart once said, “…become a politician for empowerment in your living room, in your community…vote. Educate others to vote for self and for all. But voting alone won’t do it. Winning politics is a 365 day [affair]…”