No candidate for president would logically overlook one-fifth of the nation’s voting-aged population. That massive slice of the electoral pie comprises the roughly 40 million Americans with disabilities who are 18 and over. Though not as cohesively identified nor traditionally courted as other minority groups, the disability vote is one that politicians ignore at their peril.
The 2000 presidential election proved the significant role voters with disabilities play. In the previous presidential election in 1996, only about a third of people with disabilities voted, but turnout was 41 percent in 2000, according to an N.O.D./Harris poll conducted at the time. Grassroots “Get out the disability vote” efforts deserve much of the credit. So do organized campaigns to ensure that people with disabilities were informed of their right to register and vote; efforts to ensure that service providers met their legal requirement to offer their clients the opportunity to do so; community efforts to make polling places and voting machines more accessible; and, one can assume, the issues and positions that the candidates presented to voters.
In the 2000 election, Al Gore won the popular vote, but so narrowly that he and George W. Bush each had 48 percent of the electorate (the remaining four percent going to Ralph Nader and other candidates). According to Harris Interactive, the split in the disability community was quite different, with 56 percent of this voting segment casting ballots for Gore, compared to 38 percent for Bush.
Knowing that 41 percent of the estimated 40 million voting-aged citizens with disabilities did vote (16.4 million people), Bush received more than 6.2 million votes from this community, and Gore got almost 9.2 million.
That difference of close to three million votes made a huge impact in this exceptionally close election, where Gore won the popular vote by just 544,000. Without the disproportionately high support from voters with disabilities, he would not have.
What if people with disabilities had voted at the same rate as other Americans – 51 percent – while their split on the candidates remained constant? Bush would then have had 7.7 million votes to Gore’s 11.4 million from this community. The gap between them would have increased by only about 720,000 votes, but that would have more than doubled Gore’s popular vote lead. Well under a thousand votes would have tipped Florida’s final count. In fact, if only Florida voters with disabilities had turned out at the same rate as other Florida voters, the Supreme Court would never have had a case to decide.
If people with disabilities voted at the rate of other Americans, Gore would have had a more decisive victory in the popular vote and won the electoral college. By contrast, if people with disabilities had voted with the same split for the candidates but at the lower rate they did in 1996 (33 percent), Bush would have narrowly won the popular vote as well as securing the Electoral College.
The Impact at the State Level
Anthony P. DeStefano has compiled a list of 11 states where the 2000 race was so close that voters with disabilities had an impact. In these states, at least four times as many people with disabilities voted as the size of the difference between the candidates’ tallies. These states are, according to Mr. DeStefano’s research, Florida, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, and Wisconsin. Those states, with 116 total electoral votes out of 537 nationally, will be targets of both campaigns in 2004. Five of the 11 states went with Gore in 2000 (Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wisconsin) while the other seven went for Bush. A change in the ratio by which voters support Democrats or Republicans in these states, or a noteworthy increase or decrease in the numbers of voters with disabilities who cast ballots, could shift things notably.A Trend Toward the Democrats
In the 1988 Presidential Campaign, then Vice President George H.W. Bush reached out to the disability community, and pledged to support and sign the Americans with Disabilities Act. This has been cited as one of the reasons that he did respectably with this voting segment, which only narrowly favored Michael Dukakis by 53 to 47 percentCthe virtual inverse of the overall national vote (53-46 for Bush).In recent elections, 1988 was the highwater mark for Republicans in courting the disability vote. Despite Bush making good on his pledge to sign the ADA, which he did in 1990, two years later Bill Clinton took 52 percent of the disability vote, compared to 29 percent for Bush and 17 percent for Ross Perot. That compares to total voting percentages of 43 for Clinton, 37.5 for Bush and 19 for Perot.In 1996, Clinton ran for reelection with Republican Bob Dole as his opponent; Perot ran again as well. The total vote favored Clinton, who got 49 percent, compared to 41 for Dole and eight for Perot. But the disability community really favored Clinton, giving him 69 percent of its vote, compared to 23 percent for Dole and five percent for Perot.Democrats, seeing this trend, should logically want to get out the disability vote. Republicans, meanwhile, will want to sway disability voters to their side of the ballot, and to reach out to Republican-leaning voters who have disabilities and might not vote, but if they did could improve that party’s odds.Many voters with disabilities, like other voters, will choose their candidates because of a wide variety of issues: their views on the candidates= leadership skills, personality, resume, agenda, and stands on social issues like abortion rights and gay marriage. But for voters with disabilities, civil rights are likely to have weight. This population group is twice as likely to live in poverty, so social programs and the protection of services and benefits are important.
What message does this give the candidates running for President in 2004? According to the Harris survey, the now-incumbent President, George W. Bush, did not fare well with the disability vote in 2000. However, he secured a significant minority of this population segment’s vote, which he needed. His 2004 campaign should know better than to take this voting segment for granted, and must reach out to it aggressively (unless he is so confident of a landslide that he is willing to cede much of it to the Democrats). Of course, heading into an election season that will demand he focus on domestic issues, disability issues could be a natural focal point for the president’s “compassionate conservative” ideology. As he demonstrated in unveiling his New Freedom Initiative in 2001, this President knows that disability rights have a cross-partisan appeal. During the 2003-2004 primary season, the Democratic candidates were quite responsive on disability issues. Just as they made efforts to connect with other minority groups, including women, Hispanics, African-Americans, and homosexuals, they did substantial outreach to the disability community and its supporters. Howard Dean took an early stand when he released his disability platform on the ADA’s anniversary in July, 2003 – the earliest a candidate has brought such a focus to disability in a primary contest. Through the fall, Wesley Clark, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, Dennis Kucinich and Carol Mosely Braun released significant disability statements. Links were posted during the primaries, and remain for those with active websites, at www.nod.org/election2004.html. Clark, Dean, Edwards, Gephardt, Kerry, and Kucinich responded to specific questions that the American Association of People with Disabilities posed to them last fall about including people with disabilities in their campaigns, making judicial nominations, Medicaid, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Clark, Dean, Edwards, Kerry and Kucinich responded to ADAPT’s survey about community-based long-term health care. Dean, Edwards, Gephardt and Kerry accepted former Congressman Tony Coelho’s challenge to prioritize disability issues.Kerry, now the presumptive Democratic nominee, has released a comprehensive 22-page disability policy platform. His fellow Vietnam veteran, former Georgia Senator Max Cleland, has been a prominent member of the Kerry team. Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam and uses a wheelchair, has bolstered their candidate’s connection to the community, as have a credentialed team of disability advisors. Many people with disabilities are going to vote Democrat or Republican based on a plethora of reasons that may have nothing to do with disability. Yet certain issues have a particular connection for a population group where only one-third are employed, many of those underemployed; where medical costs and insurance are frequent worries; where the availability of affordable transportation and housing are key to one’s quality of life; and where the civil rights promised by the ADA for employment, community services, and access can have a daily impact. Voters who may not have disabilities but who have relatives and friends who do, or who work as caregivers and service providers, will also focus on these issues.The late disability advocate and “Father of the ADA,” Justin Dart, used to tell people, “Vote as if your life depends on it. Because it does.” Many have responded to that call in the past, and a variety of advances will make it possible for more to in the future. The Help America Vote Act of 2002, advances in voting machine technology, and the enforcement of polling place compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act are making the voting process ever more accessible. Americans with disabilities made the 2000 election a close one. If they had split their vote differently or gone to the polls in different numbers, history might have been changed. In 2004, with another close election likely, voters with disabilities will play an important role again.