Voting is a fundamental right for us as Minnesotans and as U.S. citizens. Many of us remember the first time we cast a ballot. We were proud to vote for the candidates of our choice.
We at Access Press often emphasize the ease of early voting in Minnesota. We are thankful that is an option and we don’t take it for granted. We also respect that many people like to go to a polling place and cast a ballot.
Those of us with disabilities have not always had that rite of passage experience when we cast our first ballot, or as we continue to practice our rights as voters. We may have sat in a wheelchair or on a scooter, and pondered the staircase in front of us. We may have had no assistance with a visual disability. We may have encountered a less-than-stellar election judge who tried to improperly influence our choices instead of simply assisting us with marking a ballot.
Annoying and frustrating as those experiences can be, we especially take issue with people who try to prevent people with disabilities from voting. It is an incredible form of disrespect, to deny someone a basic civil right. It’s just wrong.
Our voting rights have been protected for many years, going back to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It requires election officials to allow a disabled voter to receive assistance from a person of the voter’s choice. It prohibits tying the right to vote to a citizen’s ability to read, write, attain a certain level of education, or pass a test. The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984 puts further access requirements in place for us.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a leading mandate to widely protect against discrimination, including when someone is voting. The U.S. Department of Justice offers guidance on how to apply the ADA on voting issues at www.ADA.gov, with a comprehensive checklist for accessible polling places and information on common problems.
We also rely on the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, which spells out how voting must be accessible for individuals with disabilities, especially for people with visual disabilities. It also requires that each polling place have at least one accessible voting device in place for federal elections.
But we’d like to see done more in cases where a disabled person’s competency is questioned. We’d like to see better, stronger protections, and more sanctions against those who would unfairly prevent others from voting.
We all too often read of family members who try to prevent a disabled person from voting. Or, election judges may unfairly question someone’s competency and try to keep someone from voting. These people need to face some consequences.
So let’s all remember this:
As long as a judge did not restrict a person’s right to vote through court order, disabled voters have the right to vote even when under guardianship or under conservatorship. That also applies if a voter has a brain injury, has a cognitive disability, experiences memory loss or has given someone else the power of attorney.
No one else can make a decision on voting on a voter’s behalf, including a spouse, children, attorneys, caregivers, doctors or nurses.
The only disabled Minnesotans who cannot vote are those who have been declared legally incompetent by a court.
Residents of a group home or other residential facility for people with disabilities can vote, typically if they bring a staff member to the polls to vouch for them. Residential facilities can include assisted living facilities, facilities for victims of domestic violence, homeless shelters, nursing homes, residential alcohol and chemical treatment facilities, supervised living facilities, transitional housing and veterans’ homes. This can be a long process for election judges as voters are verified and assigned in. But it is a process that nevertheless must be followed and must comply with the law.
People who try to block our voting rights as disabled citizens need to be called out. Disability law advocates need to know when our voting rights are threatened, even if family members are involved Local election officials need to know if an elections worker tries to prevent someone from voting. The news media needs to know.
We people with disabilities need to vote, freely and unencumbered.