Voters with disabilities want changes

Changes to voting laws are among many issues still in play during the final weeks of Minnesota’s 2013 legislative session. But with no clear agreements and Gov. Mark Dayton insisting that any measures have broad bipartisan support; it’s not clear what if anything will be signed into law this spring.

That hasn’t deterred state lawmakers from sponsoring election law bills this session. Nor has it kept members of Minnesota’s disability community from calling for changes ranging from guardianship under voting to improved polling place accessibility.

The Minnesota State Council on Disability (MSCOD) hosted a March 18 town hall meeting on election laws. “With the various voting bills up for debate at the capitol this session,” said MSCOD Executive Director Joan Willshire, “We wanted to make sure people with disabilities were both aware of the proposed changes and had an opportunity to talk to the decision-makers framing the discussion.”

Minnesota had the highest voter turnout in the country with 76 percent of eligible voters casting ballots in November 2012. That is a point of pride for Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie. But he and voting rights advocates said more can be done to help Minnesotans with disabilities vote. Voters and panelists raised issues ranging from the need for all polling places to be accessible as required by state law to making it easier to vote before an election. The issues of voting under guardianship, which have caused controversy in some communities, were also discussed.

Ritchie said any changes to election law should preserve the state’s high voting tradition while also expanding the right to vote to more citizens—especially people with disabilities.

“There’s momentum to make some change,” Ritchie said. One change being sought that would benefit many Minnesotans would be early voting.

Currently Minnesota only allows absentee voting. If illness, disability or absence from a home precinct would keep a person from voting, an absentee ballot can be cast. Early voting allows ballots to be cast prior to an election without the voter going through the absentee ballot application process.

The disability community in Minnesota voted at the highest rate in the country in the general election, said Jim Dickson. He is vice president for organizing and civic engagement at the American Association of People with Disabilities. But Dickson said the general election is less important than primary elections because the campaign issues have already been decided. “Primaries are the elections that frame the debate,” Dickson said. “Because our participation in primaries is dismal, we do not have elected officials coming to us saying ‘what do you want?’”

Dickson, who spoke via video feed from Washington, D.C., also said that candidates and pollsters don’t recognize people with disabilities as a key subgroup, calling them “invisible voters.”

Jeff Narabrook of the Minnesota Participation Project discussed measures other states use that could be used in Minnesota. Some states have adopted online voter registration systems, while some Pacific Northwest states have created voting systems that operate entirely by mail. A similar measure has been eyed for parts of rural Minnesota.

“There are several options Minnesota could examine in order to make voting more accessible for people with disabilities,” Narabrook said.

Issues for voters with disabilities drew increased scrutiny recently when an 86-year-old St. Peter woman was charged with voter fraud for mistakenly voting twice in the 2013 primary. She had voted absentee and then in person. The woman, who has Parkinson’s disease and dementia, said she forgot she had voted.

A Nicolett County District Court judge ruled April 2 that Margaret Schneider will not have to pay a fine, spend time in jail or serve probation under an agreement. Instead she is required to obey election law and will have her record cleared on Nov. 30, 2014 if there are no further infractions.

To view the town hall meeting, which has been archived, go to MSCOD’s website: www.disability.state.mn.us Information by contributing writer Colin Stemper, Access Press staff and the Mankato Free Press was used in this article.