KosAbility is a community diary series posted at 5 PM ET every Sunday and Wednesday by volunteer diarists. This is a gathering place for people who are living with disabilities, who love someone with a disability, or who want to know more about the issues surrounding this topic. There are two parts to each diary. First, a volunteer diarist will offer their specific knowledge and insight about a topic they know intimately. Then, readers are invited to comment on what they've read and or ask general questions about disabilities, share something they've learned, tell bad jokes, post photos, or rage about the unfairness of their situation. Our only rule is to be kind; trolls will be spayed or neutered.
The target of all the new state voter-ID laws is racial minorities, in an attempt to keep the country's first black president from winning re-election. But the new laws don't stop at just hurting racial minorities - they make it more difficult for those of us who are disabled to get out to the polls as well. Just yesterday in Tennessee, the American Association of People with Disabilities protested that state's voter-ID law:
“The state, counties and federal government have spent a lot of money making polling places accessible,” said Jim Dickson, vice president of organizing and civic engagement for the Washington-based organization. “Voting is an amazing experience and it is wrong — wrong — and it is mean-spirited to place a photo ID barrier between a citizen with a disability and a voting booth.”
Supporters of the law say that because many other forms of ID are acceptable at the polls, the law is no more onerous than policies requiring a photo ID to cash a check or buy alcohol. They also say voters can cast their ballots absentee if they do not have an ID and cannot get one.
Dickson, who is blind, said the latter argument is unfair to people like him.
“I have to give up a secret ballot if I’m going to vote absentee,” he said.
The problems with voter-ID laws aren't just limited to stopping people at the polls. In some states, there are new attempts to prevent people from helping potential voters to register. Texas is an example:
Similarly, Jessica Gomez of Disability Rights Texas observed that a number of people with disabilities have a “full guardianship” – a term for those whose have a mental incapacity that restricts them from voting. As a result, they are not eligible Texas voters and would be forbidden from registering others.
Gomez noted one individual in particular who for years carried around voter registration forms in his wheelchair because even though he couldn’t vote, registering others made him feel more a part of the community.
Some of the other ways in which states are making it more difficult for people with disabilities to vote are less blatant but just as dangerous. When you're dealing with those of us with pressing health problems, we don't often have a lot of time to sit around and wait in lines, search for documents or get the money, time and patience to purchase new ones. We're often dealing with medical needs that make spending many consecutive hours working on these things difficult and make spending money that we would normally need for medical expenses on new documents impossible:
It takes time, money, patience and determination to get the required photo IDs. In some states, state budget crises have led to shortening the work weeks at the state agency, notably motor vehicles, or even closing branch offices—such as in Wisconsin, Tennessee and Texas—where people need to go to get the ID. The ID itself may cost between $10 and $30, but there can be hidden costs if other forms of identification are needed to verify one’s identity and residency necessary to get a state ID. For example, not everybody has a birth certificate, marriage license, passport, divorce record or other documents, adding a complicating and time-consuming factor.
The requirements for secondary IDs, if available, can cost upward of $200 (for naturalization papers, not passports), and 17 states require a photo ID to get a copy of a birth certificate, which by itself can take weeks or months. Many elderly people born at home simply do not have these underlying papers, transportation or funds to get the required voting ID. These bureaucratic steps amount to a poll tax, a notorious tactic used to stop African Americans and poor whites from voting.
And then of course there are the attempts to shut down or suspend the hours of government offices that are supposed to help people get the correct papers together so they can vote. Obviously, this creates longer lines and requires people to wait around for extended periods of time. And if you're in a wheelchair, and you need to plan ahead for a ride to the polls only to discover your polling place was consolidated with another one and moved at the last moment, that's too bad:
Already, tight state budgets have given cover to political decisions in Tennessee, Wisconsin and Texas to limit the operating hours of, or close, the state offices where residents can obtain required photo IDs. As a result, waiting times in the offices that remain open have grown longer in Tennessee and Wisconsin. In Texas, there are 34 counties with no Department of Public Safety Offices, including four counties where the Hispanic population is more than 75 percent.
Limiting access to voter-related services before Election Days creates very troubling precedents for Election Day, when longtime polling places might be consolidated and moved with little public notice, or under-staffed by poll workers, who are volunteers—not professional election administrators. In other words, not only do would-be voters in many states have to get their credentials in order, it may take them much longer to vote because poll workers will have more work to do to process voters.
This is especially an effective tactic when you consider accessibility issues for people in wheelchairs and with other mobility problems. In a lot of places, even now, finding a handicap accessible polling place can be a problem for people. I still bring an aunt or a cousin along with me to vote just in case I run into an issue like this. In rural areas like mine it can be especially awkward because the buildings are less advanced and no one seems particularly worried about making things easier for people who are disabled.
It happens more than you would think:
The exact number of inaccessible polling places in the United States isn’t known, although this undated article puts the number at around 20,000, in direct violation of multiple laws. Various clauses which enforce accessibility in polling places to some degreecan be found in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Voting Accessibility for Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984, the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, and the Help America Vote Act of 2002. That’s a whole lot of legislation. 22 years after passage of the ADA, we’re still struggling to make polling places accessible, let alone address full access and inclusion in society for people with disabilities.
Accessibility is a process and a continuum, not an endpoint; many checklists of polling place accessibility focus on things like ramps, lowered voting booths, stalls with audio voting systems for people with visual impairments so they can vote privately, an accessible parking space near the polling place, and other strategies to accommodate most people with physical disabilities. None of these things would actually help me vote, although I still firmly believe they should be available at every polling place.
Asking its readers what they would do if they wanted to vote but the polling place was locked, the Center for an Accessible Society goes onto describe the issue this way:
Data is scarce on the extent of the accessibility problem, but where researchers have looked, the results have not been encouraging. In 1999, the attorney general for the State of New York ran a check of polling places around the state and found many problems. A study of three upstate counties found fewer than 10 percent of polling places fully compliant with state and federal laws.
Polling booths are set in church basements or in upstairs meeting halls where there is no ramp or elevator. Or there is no disabled parking, or doorways are too narrow. All this means problems not just for people who use wheelchairs, but for people using canes or walkers too. And in most states people who are blind don't have the right to a Braille ballot; they have to bring someone along to vote for them, and might well wonder if that person is really following their instructions. It appears that a person requires sight to have the right to a secret ballot.
This is all, of course, in spite of the fact that there are a lot of federal protections on the books for disabled people who want to exercise their right to vote. It's still happening anyway, and the current attempts to create new laws are making the situation a lot worse.