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Elections Have Gotten More Accessible for Disabled Voters, but Gaps Remain

ID: Signs directing voters at a Phoenix library serving as a polling location during the state’s presidential preference election in March. Credit...Ash Ponders for The New York Times

From the article:

In 2018, Kenia Flores, who is blind, voted by mail in North Carolina because she was attending college out of state. Had she been able to vote in person, she could have used an accessible machine. But voting absentee, her only option was to tell another person her choices and have them fill out her ballot. She had no way to verify what they did.

Dessa Cosma, who uses a wheelchair, arrived at her precinct in Michigan that year to find that all the voting booths were standing height. A poll worker suggested she complete her ballot on the check-in table and got annoyed when Ms. Cosma said she had a right to complete it privately. Another worker intervened and found a private space.

That night, Ms. Cosma — the executive director of Detroit Disability Power, where Ms. Flores is a voting access and election protection fellow — vented to the group’s advisory committee and discovered that “every one of them had a story about lack of ability to vote easily, and we all had different disabilities,” she said. “It made me realize, ‘Oh wow, even more than I realized, this is a significant problem.’”

It has been for decades. A series of laws — including the Help America Vote Act in 2002, or HAVA, which created new standards for election administration and grant programs for states to maintain those standards — have sought to make it easier. And they have, but major gaps remain.

That is illustrated in a new report to the federal Election Assistance Commission, to be released Thursday by six researchers from Rutgers University and one from San Diego State University.

The report, provided to The New York Times, looked at elections through the 20th anniversary of HAVA in 2022 and found that the law had generally improved accessibility. The shift was reflected both quantitatively (in turnout and the percentage of people reporting trouble voting) and qualitatively (in voters’ responses in focus groups).

But while the gap has shrunk, disabled Americans still vote at much lower rates than Americans who aren’t disabled.

In 2000, the last pre-HAVA election, turnout for people with disabilities was nearly 17 percentage points lower than the rate for people without disabilities. By 2020 — the most recent election that is directly comparable, since presidential and midterm years have different characteristics — that had narrowed to about 11 points.

The gap has always been smaller in midterms, whose electorates tend to consist of fewer and more dedicated voters. In 2022, it was 4.6 points, which was lower than the last midterm before HAVA (5.7 points in 1998) but not the narrowest result over the full period (4 points in 2014).

A separate measure — what percentage of people reported difficulty voting, even if they managed it — showed significant progress over the past 10 years.

In 2012, more than a quarter of people with disabilities, 26 percent, reported having trouble — far higher than the roughly 7 percent of people without disabilities who did. In 2022, 14 percent of disabled people reported trouble, compared with 4 percent of nondisabled people.

But the data showed backsliding recently: The 14 percent in 2022 was up from about 11 percent in 2020.

The lead researchers — Douglas Kruse and Lisa Schur, co-directors of the Rutgers Program for Disability Research and professors at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations — said they could not say for sure why that happened. But they said the increase might reflect the revocation of pandemic policies that had made it easier to vote by mail, or an increase in people newly disabled by long Covid.

Dr. Kruse said a particularly revealing finding was that, from 2018 to 2022, turnout increased among people with disabilities even as it decreased overall. (The overall decrease was not surprising, as 2018 was an unusually high-turnout midterm election.) And the increase among disabled voters came almost entirely in states that made it easier to vote by mail during the pandemic.

“It’s a very striking indication that — surprise, surprise — making it easier to vote makes a big difference,” Dr. Kruse said.

Over the past three years, many Republican-led states have enacted new restrictions — including shortening early-voting periods, reducing the number of ballot drop boxes and limiting who can help voters return absentee ballots — that disability rights advocates have argued disproportionately affect disabled people.

Dr. Schur and Dr. Kruse emphasized that the research did not provide enough data to isolate the effects of specific restrictions.

But “even if they have a small impact, it’s a cumulative effect that people have multiple barriers to voting,” Dr. Schur said. “It’s transportation, it’s the time they have to vote early, it’s the time they have to do a mail-in ballot — each restriction just adds to the burden.”

While the greater accessibility of mail-in voting appears to have made a difference in the last two elections, the progress in the first years after HAVA appears to have been driven by better accessibility at polling places, including wheelchair access and accessible voting machines that can read ballots out loud and mark them.

But many voters reported in the focus groups that poll workers didn’t know how the machines worked.

Two years after her bad experience completing a ballot from her wheelchair, Ms. Cosma tried an accessible machine. It gave an error message, which the workers had to call for help to resolve. When they got it working, she completed and printed her ballot — only to find that the tabulator wouldn’t accept it because the paper was a different size from the paper used in the other voting machines.

“I eventually had to leave without seeing my ballot get put in the tabulator,” she said. “I do this kind of work professionally, I know how to advocate for myself, I know the rules, and I still left without my ballot being counted in front of me.”

Benjamin Hovland, the chairman of the Election Assistance Commission, said the remaining turnout gap could be tougher to close.

“A lot of work from election officials has gone into shrinking that gap, but if we want to think about how we make the next 5 percent, that’s going to require doubling down efforts,” Mr. Hovland said. “Some of this was undoubtedly lower-hanging fruit.”

He said the commission’s focuses included increasing training for election workers and promoting a wider range of voting options — with the understanding that mail-in voting might be the best option for many people with disabilities but the worst for others.

The researchers offered seven recommendations to the Election Assistance Commission and to local officials.

Among them were more extensively publicizing voting options and accommodations, which many focus group participants were unaware of, and having people with disabilities test polling locations in advance to identify problems.

Still, there are concrete signs of change.

Ms. Flores, who had to have someone else complete her absentee ballot in 2018, would not have had to do that today. After a court order in 2021, North Carolina lets disabled voters complete absentee ballots electronically.


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