While most Minnesotans are bemoaning the end of the State Fair and another brief summer, another harbinger of fall has hit the local media. Yes, the election season is upon us, with the crossfire of candidate sniping already dominating the airwaves.
Despite the conventional wisdom, which holds that the voting public doesn’t seriously think about politics until after Labor Day, the volley of campaign ads begins earlier with each successive election cycle. Fueled this year by huge out-of-state dollars, the stakes are particularly high. Razor-thin margins in both houses of Congress will again lead to record campaign spending. The steady stream of Washington insiders leading local fund-raisers should soon lead to an HOV lane in the skies between Washington National and our own MSP International Airport.
Additionally, all 201 state legislators are up for reelection a bunch of judges, and local county boards scattered statewide will see new members as well. Minnesotans with disabilities ought to be paying attention.
Justin Dart was fond of saying: “Vote as if your life depended on it because it does.” He was right. Especially these days, with a struggling economy and a jittery Wall Street, the federal and most state budgets are facing red ink. Policymakers at every level are poised to cut programs and services. People with disabilities need to be asking candidates where they stand on issues affecting our community before they pull the lever on election day.
For the most part, the general public tunes out the white noise of campaign commercials and glossy mass market mailings. Studying the issues takes time and energy. Most people with disabilities are not necessarily advocates or activists. Rather, they go about the business of life living from paycheck to paycheck, shopping for groceries, running errands, and looking forward to weekends with friends and family.
But when it comes to voting, every person with a disability should wear an advocate’s hat. We need to do a better job of educating candidates on key issues like housing, transportation, and health care. And we need to show up at the polls to show we mean business.
According to the American Association of People with Disabilities, 275,412 voting age people with disabilities in Minnesota didn’t vote in the 2000 election. The good news is 55 percent of voting age disabled did vote. The bad news is this rate lags well behind the general population statistics.
Of course, there are often barriers to participation in the election process inaccessibility of polling places and transportation challenges chief among them. A 2001 General Accounting Office (GAO) report found that 28 percent of surveyed polling places nationwide had one or more potential access barriers and did not offer a “curbside” voting option outside the building. While there are laws on the books to prevent this phenomenon including the Voter Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act discrimination happens. Why? Because “there are no universal standards for state and local voting accessibility laws and practices,” says the GAO report.
Minnesota is better positioned than most states, and great strides were made to improve accessibility of polling locations and methods during the 1990s. In large part, this was due to the positive working relationship between the State Council on Disability and the Secretary of State’s office. While there is always room for improvement, there’s been no call for class action lawsuits, the likes of which have been filed recently in Washington, D.C. and Duval County, Florida.
There is another option for people with disabilities that should be utilized more than it is, and that’s absentee balloting. Available to any Minnesotan with a disability, these simple applications are available by mail, fax, or in person from your county auditor’s office. This does not condone the lack of accessible voting options or signal tacit approval of “curbside balloting” where accommodations don’t exist. But it may be the only option available to those with chronic illness or unstable medical conditions. While I expect to cast my ballot alongside my able-bodied peers and will gladly stand in line for the privilege to do so, for those who can’t or won’t, a mail-in option should always exist.
Ambrose Bierce called the vote “the instrument and symbol of a freeman’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.” Voting is easy and it is powerful. If you don’t exercise this right, do you really trust the rest of us to choose for you?