Last week, USA Today ran a story about a study of disabled voters that suggests that as many as 3.2 million disabled voters are “sidelined” in the electoral process. The study, Sidelined or Mainstreamed? Political Participation and Attitudes of People with Disabilities in the United States by Lisa Schur of Rutgers and Meera Adya of Syracuse, finds that this large number of “sidelined” voters is the product of several different factors: lower motivation and reduced mobility plus, in some cases, the persistence of barriers at the polls. This last observation is somewhat puzzling given the apparent focus – especially since passage of the Help America Vote Act – on improving accessibility for disabled voters. And yet, as the study found, accessibility issues remain: a GAO report from 2009 found that only 27 percent of polling places nationwide had “no features that might impede access to the voting area for people with disabilities”, with another 45 percent presenting some barriers but offering curbside voting.
These figures suggest that there is still much to do in the area of improving access for voters with disabilities. What does seem clear is that much of what we’ve done to date – for example, HAVA’s mandate of accessible voting machines – simply isn’t working (at least in terms of the numbers of voters taking advantage of such machines). Moreover, as the field of election administration continues to change with the growing use of absentee, vote-by-mail and other non-precinct place voting, election officials and advocates alike need to look for ways to make the process work for willing voters of all abilities.