It’s long been difficult for Americans with disabilities to vote. Inaccessible paths are an obstacle to people who use wheelchairs. Long lines are a huge hurdle to people with chronic pain. Voting machines without audio or large-print ballots are an impediment to those who are blind or who have low vision. But last year, something different happened: As states passed pandemic-driven reforms to make voting easier for everyone, they inadvertently made voting a lot easier for most people with disabilities.
And vote, they did. Nearly 62 percent of Americans with disabilities voted in 2020, a surge of nearly 6 percentage points over 2016, or 1.7 million more voters. The number of disabled voters reporting difficulties while voting also dropped significantly; in 2020, 11 percent of disabled voters reported having problems, down from 26 percent in 2012, according to an Election Assistance Commission report. That’s not to say voting was suddenly simple: Mail-in ballots aren’t easier for everyone, including those with visual or cognitive disabilities. And in 2020, disabled Americans were still roughly 7 percent less likely to vote than nondisabled Americans. But the changes made a real difference.
Now state policy makers want to turn back the clock. Citing exaggerated concerns about voter fraud, state legislators have passed a wave of new bills that will make it harder for disabled people to vote in future elections. Overall, lawmakers have introduced more than 400 bills in 49 states this year that would restrict access to voting for people with disabilities. At least 18 states have already passed such laws. These laws either target mail-in ballots, reduce the amount of time voters have to request or mail in a ballot, restrict the availability of drop-off locations, impose stricter signature requirements for mail-in voting, or enact new and stricter voter-ID requirements.
Are the authors of these bills intentionally attempting to disenfranchise disabled voters? The truth is more nuanced, and perhaps grimmer: People with disabilities are, for the most part, omitted from the conversation altogether. “These types of laws are written without even thinking about how they’re going to impact people with disabilities—until we come forth and start talking about our experiences and how legislation like this is going to impact us,” Michelle Bishop, the manager of voter access and engagement at the National Disability Rights Network, told me. “People with disabilities are very often collateral damage in these conversations.”
For example, S.B. 7 in Texas would ban drive-through voting, which would create difficulty for immunocompromised people who are unable to enter a polling place without risking their health. Likewise, S.F. 173 in Minnesota would require voters to provide an ID to vote in person, which would increase the burden for people who don’t drive; in addition to finding transportation to the voting booth, they would first need to get to a government office—that may or may not be accessible—to obtain the necessary identification. And in Wisconsin, A.B. 201 would prevent nonmilitary voters from automatically receiving an absentee ballot, which would make voting more challenging for those who can’t physically vote in person, whether because of being immunocompromised or having chronic pain.
Lawmakers’ intentions are irrelevant, Andrés Gallegos, the chair of the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency, told me: “Regardless of intention, any law which reduces the ability of individuals to vote by mail and/or lessens the amount of ballot drop-off sites will disproportionately impact the ability of people with disabilities to cast a ballot.”
Some of these voter-integrity bills and laws do intentionally target people with disabilities. These measures are based on long-standing prejudices, Bishop told me: “That those people are not intelligent, or they’re not with the times, or they don’t have a firm grip on reality and that someone is just going to try to influence them … If you know enough people with disabilities, you know that’s simply not true.”
For example, a Texas law, H.B. 3920, requires disabled voters to sign a statement declaring their inability to vote in person so they can receive a mail-in ballot, but it explicitly rejects illness as a basis for that declaration. As a result, immunocompromised people may have to risk endangering their health by voting in person, says Dominic Kelly, a senior manager of fundraising at Fair Fight Action, a national voting-rights organization based in Georgia.
Many argue that the intended effect of these bills is to suppress the votes of people of color. But when you reduce access for voters of color, voters with disabilities are shut out too. Statistically, a higher proportion of Black Americans (one in four) and Native Americans and Alaska Natives (three in 10) are disabled than the proportion of white Americans (one in five).
Others argue that although these bills might introduce inconveniences, that’s a small price to pay for stronger election integrity. But what might seem trivial to some could be insurmountable for people with disabilities, Gallegos told me.
Congress could enact federal laws that would mitigate the effects of these state laws. Some provisions in the For the People Act would increase accessibility requirements at polling places and expand access to early voting and same-day voter registration. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would protect voters by preventing states from enacting restrictive laws. So far, though, neither bill appears close to passage.
Some changes that aided disabled voters in 2020 will stick. At least 54 bills that will expand voting access have been signed into law in 25 states. One of those states, North Carolina, has made absentee voting via an online system permanent for voters with disabilities after experimenting with the measure during the 2020 election. And more than 900 bills that would expand voting access have been introduced in 49 states. But absent congressional action, disabled Americans’ access to the vote will continue to depend on where they live.