Like many in Iowa, Jacki O’Donnell is an avid political enthusiast. She was prepared to vote for Hillary Clinton in the Democratic caucus. Unfortunately, she had to leave before party business began. O’Donnell was in a back brace after fracturing her vertebrae, and sitting in a metal folding chair for hours while caucus-goers deliberated proved too much. Thus, she became one of thousands of U.S. citizens with disabilities unable to participate fully in the caucus process. Thirteen states use the caucus system to select 10 percent of Democratic and 15 percent of Republican delegates, who in turn vote for their party’s presidential nominee. Caucuses are the quintessential places of public accommodation. Everyone affiliated with a political party is expressly invited to attend and participate. But, whereas voters in a primary cast a secret ballot and then leave, caucus-goers cluster to listen to people speak about their chosen candidate. Attendees then vote for delegates who will carry their wishes to the national party convention.
In theory, caucuses bring large-scale democracy to the living room, create community engagement, and allow people to deliberate before casting a vote. These benefits, though, are not open to everyone. At least 37 percent of people in the United States have a disability. An estimated 30 to 35 percent of all voters in the next 25 years will need some form of accommodation. While we lack research on caucus-goers, Rutgers professor Lisa Schur reports that people with disabilities are up to 21 percent less likely to vote than people without disabilities.
Voters with disabilities face numerous barriers to caucus participation. The obstacles vary depending upon the type of impairment. A deaf voter may be unable to understand fellow voters without captioning or translation. A veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder may find the prospect of standing in a crowded room for hours impossible. Elderly voters and voters with physical impairments may not have the stamina to sustain hours of deliberation.