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Disabled Voters Face Obstacles at Polls

Most of us take for granted that when we go to vote, we’ll be able to cast our own ballots. But for disabled people, there’s no such guarantee.

Rob Kerney assumed he would be able to vote in private for the first time Tuesday. Because he is blind, Kerney needs to use audio voting equipment or have someone else help him mark his ballot. When he went to vote in Vanderburgh County, Indiana, a poll worker gave him some bad news: His polling place didn’t have the correct headphones to use with their audio voting machine.

“It seems that every time we step forward we get knocked back even further,” Kerney said in a statement. “Just because I am blind, does not mean I am stupid or less of a citizen.”

In August, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Harris County, Texas, for failing to make all of its polling places accessible.

“Voters with disabilities assigned to inaccessible polling places are being harmed in that they are being denied the same opportunities as nondisabled voters to vote in person during Early Voting and on Election Day, and to participate equally in the electoral process,” it wrote in its complaint.

Harris County is just one of many local jurisdictions the Justice Department has sued in recent years over inaccessible polling places.

The Help America Vote Act of 2002 required, among other things, that polling places be accessible and have at least one accessible voting machine.

And while many disabled voters were able to cast ballots this year, many still faced barriers. Some of these were physical — such as polling places without the special equipment necessary to accommodate disabilities. Others have been disenfranchised because they are under legal guardianship, a step taken when adults are considered too ill or incapacitated to care for themselves.

On Election Day, some disabled voters who met with problems took to social media or reported issues to Electionland.

One voter told us about access problems in Cambria Heights, N.Y.: “You have to go down two flights of stairs and the disabled have a really hard time getting down there to vote. There is no elevator, no ramp. No handicap accessibility.”

A group of disability activists started a twitter campaign called #cripthevote, which served as a forum for disabled voters to voice their concerns.

“In terms of voting we heard a lot of stories on election day. Some people encountered access issues, some had great experiences, a few dealt with some pretty overt ableism,” #cripthevote organizer Gregg Beratan said.

It’s difficult to assess just how many disabled voters encountered barriers or other troubles at their polling places this year because most exit polls do not ask about disability status, despite years of pressure from advocates.

A study of the 2012 election by the National Council on Disability found that 40 percent of disabled voters encountered a barrier at their polling places.

Jennifer LaFleur is an editor with Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, which participated in the Electionland project. She also is on the board of the National Center on Disability and Journalism.

About Electionland

ProPublica’s Electionland project covers problems that prevent eligible voters from casting their ballots during the 2020 elections. Our coalition of newsrooms around the country are investigating issues related to voter registration, pandemic-related changes to voting, the shift to vote-by-mail, cybersecurity, voter education, misinformation, and more.

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