#CripTheVote Shows the Need to Make Voting More Accessible for People with Disabilities
Robin Tovey lives in Portland, Oregon, and she’s voted in every election since the 1990s. But one of her first memories about an election is from junior high, when she was growing up in a small town in rural Oregon and Jesse Jackson came to speak at the high school.
The junior high kids who were in honor society got bussed over to the high school. Tovey, who was born without arms or legs, had to get a ride from her dad—the bus wasn’t accessible. When she got to the school, she heard one of Jesse Jackson’s most famous speeches: the “patchwork quilt” talk.
“When he spoke, he mentioned lots of different minority populations and the importance of inclusion,” Tovey says. “And it made an impact on me that day. So even if it was a number of years before I could vote, that was a pretty cool bit of exposure to have early on, and [it] made me think more about what was important.”
Tovey hasn’t missed an election since she was old enough to vote, and the way she sends in her ballot is pretty straightforward: She gets it in the mail, puts a pencil in her mouth, and fills in the form. Then she signs, seals, and stamps it herself.
VOTERS WHO FEEL INVISIBLE
In the United States, there are an estimated 56 million people with physical or developmental disabilities. Federal laws say that all polling places must follow a basic accessibility checklist. It includes things like wheelchair ramps, parking spaces, and entrances that are wide enough. But not all polling places even meet these minimum requirements.
Gregg Beratan, a disability rights advocate and a cofounder of the hashtag #CripTheVote, says that while his own learning disability hasn’t prevented him from voting, he’s seen plenty of examples where basic access was denied or made harder.
“The experience in urban areas I’ve seen is pretty appalling,” Beratan says. “There are places that are just inaccessible, where people are told that your only option is to get an absentee ballot.”
“I have a twin sister with a developmental disability as well, and she’s been given grief about getting assistance when she votes,” he continued. “A supervisor had to be called to get approval, and the volunteer didn’t want to let her go in with an assistant even though it’s her right to do so.”
Beratan points out that a lot of places don’t even get the basics right. And federal laws still leave enough room for states to make voting harder. Voter ID laws have been passed in 33 states. People with disabilities get the IDs that are now required to vote in some states at much lower rates, partially because many disabled people don’t drive. Four states deny the ballot to people who live under guardianship. And 30 states have laws that can ban people from voting who have been considered “mentally incapacitated” by a court.
All of these restrictions and bad ideas are scattered all over the country. But Beratan points out that the good ideas are scattered everywhere too. And when it comes to making the actual polling place more accessible, it’s a matter of finding the many ideas that work and spreading them everywhere.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of reinvention that needs to take place as much as actually spreading good practices,” says Beratan.
WHEN “ONE SIZE FITS ALL” DOESN’T FIT
This was a running theme as I talked to more people: There should be many options, because there are many kinds of needs. For instance, there’s curbside voting, where people bring the voting machine out to your car. There’s automatic voter registration. And states like Oregon, Missouri, and New Hampshire have worked on special tablets that can be brought to people’s homes.
One activist took this theme a step further and said there should be many options that all voters can choose from. Whether or not they have a disability. That way, nobody has to have an “excuse” to pick any one option.
Another option is vote by mail, which is how Tovey casts her vote in Oregon. And Oregonians are proud of the way they vote—last month, Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley proposed a bill to expand vote by mail to the rest of the country.