Pandemic Raises, Lowers Hurdles for Voters with Disabilities

By: - October 28, 2020 12:00 am

Voters arrive to cast their ballots at a polling station during the early March Democratic primaries in Birmingham, Alabama. The pandemic has made it even harder for some with disabilities to vote this year. Jarrett Christian/Sputnik via The Associated Press

Read more: Barriers to the Ballot Box

Penny Shaw, 77, who lives in a long-term care facility in Braintree, Massachusetts, normally votes at a polling place she can get to easily in her electric wheelchair. This year, Shaw had to come up with a new plan.

Braintree officials changed polling place locations because of the pandemic, and Shaw worried that her severe muscle weakness from Guillain-Barre syndrome would prevent her from getting to the nearest site. She couldn’t get election officials on the phone to confirm the new location, and she has trouble using a computer. So, she requested an absentee ballot and took it to a post office six blocks away.

“Better to be safe than sorry,” she said. “I don’t want to not vote.”

Shaw’s situation is emblematic of the new difficulties the pandemic has created for voters with disabilities — even as many of them are benefitting from the relaxation of rules regarding who can cast an absentee ballot.

Many people with disabilities, estimated to be one-sixth of voters this year, encounter barriers when they attempt to vote in person. In a 2017 study of polling places used during the 2016 election, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that 60% of them had one or more potential impediments. The most common were steep ramps outside buildings, a lack of signs indicating accessible paths and poor parking or path surfaces.

Because of the pandemic, many states this year are not requiring a specific excuse for absentee voting — a relief for some people with disabilities, said Doug Kruse, a professor at Rutgers University and co-director of the school’s disability research program. As a result, he said, turnout among voters with disabilities may increase this year.

“Anything that makes it easier to vote is good for people with disabilities,” he said.

Kruse, 61, uses a wheelchair because of injuries he suffered when he was hit by a drunken driver in 1990. He usually likes to vote in person, with his wife, Rutgers professor Lisa Schur, co-director of the disability research program, helping him over a couple of curbs in the way of his usual voting place. But this year, “I’m relieved New Jersey sent me a ballot. I really don’t want to expose myself to COVID.”

Challenges of Voting Absentee

Absentee ballots can create challenges for some people with disabilities who need assistance to mark their ballots, such as the visually impaired. Most in-person polling places provide assistants to help visually impaired voters to read the ballot and make the appropriate mark. For voters who live alone, finding somebody to help fill out an absentee ballot might be difficult at a time when people are wary of being in one another’s homes.

The issue of assistance with voting is particularly acute in assisted living facilities. In past election years, visiting relatives or friends could help residents fill out their ballots. But pandemic-related restrictions have curbed visitors, and in some states, such as North Carolina and Louisiana, state laws prohibit facility staff from helping residents vote.

A federal court ruled in August that the North Carolina law put an undue restriction on who may help residents vote, but it did not issue an injunction to stop the state from enforcing the ban. A Louisiana judge granted a temporary injunction to allow “no excuse” absentee voting and specifically singled out people who assist those with disabilities as eligible for mail-in voting themselves, as well as those they assist.

Other states, including Minnesota and Tennessee, have loosened restrictions on voting in long-term care facilities by allowing staff to be designated as election officials to help residents vote. The change is particularly important at a time when fewer facilities are hosting in-person polling places.

The federal Centers on Medicare and Medicaid Services also issued a directive on Oct. 5 to Medicare/Medicaid certified long-term care facilities affirming that “a resident’s rights, including the right to vote, must not be impeded in any way by the nursing home and its facility staff.”

“Nursing homes should have a plan to ensure residents can exercise their right to vote, whether in-person, by mail, absentee, or other authorized process,” the memo said.

Nina A. Kohn, law professor at Syracuse University and a distinguished scholar in elder law at Yale Law School, said in a phone interview that while laws like the Voting Rights Act and directives like the one from CMS may outline how voters with disabilities must be accommodated, there are often impediments.

“As a practical matter, how do they obtain that assistance?” she said. “With COVID, many individuals don’t have access to family members and friends who would provide that assistance. In congregate care settings, how to they obtain a mail-in ballot? In many states, they have to request a ballot. How do they obtain that request? Not all have access to the internet. Or they may have muscular problems that make it hard to maneuver around a computer.”

Controversy in Nevada

Maurice Miller, a 57-year-old stroke survivor who lives at a Takoma Park, Maryland, assisted living facility, said the staff at his residence took up the slack when visitors were not allowed in.

“They had members of the management team collect our ballots and drop them off at a box,” he said. “And I’ve got an ‘I Voted’ sticker on my laptop.”

But that sort of help has sparked controversy in Nevada, where President Donald Trump and Republicans argue that a change in state election law that allows nonfamily members to turn in ballots on behalf of other voters could lead to voter fraud.

Under the new rules, collecting a bunch of ballots from residents at a communal facility, so-called ballot harvesting, is legal if the collector does not attempt to influence how the residents vote. But detractors say residents of nursing homes and assisted living centers are ripe for illegal manipulation.

Nevada Republicans sued to stop the change, but their lawsuit was rejected by a federal judge who ruled in September that the dispute was a “policy disagreement,” not a legal issue.

Daniel Stewart, an election lawyer in Las Vegas and former general counsel to former Gov. Brian  Sandoval, a Republican, said the new law makes it easier for all people with disabilities to vote.

“I think potentially any new voting practice somebody could devise a way to abuse it, but I’ve seen no evidence that this in any way is going to open the doors to abuse,” Stewart said in a phone interview.

He said there are plenty of penalties in place to punish anyone who breaks the law and illegally manipulates ballots. “People who are going to spend the effort to pick up ballots, they are going to want to turn those in.”

A Sixth of the Electorate

According to a study by Kruse and Schur, a projected 38.3 million people with disabilities will be eligible to vote in the November 2020 elections, representing close to one-sixth of the total electorate. Their study showed that’s an increase of nearly 20% since 2008, compared with an increase of 12% among eligible voters without disabilities.

People with disabilities are highly motivated to vote, Kruse said, in part because they have a difficult time engaging in other political activities such as volunteering at the polls, door-knocking for candidates or contacting voters.

In the 2018 midterms, voter turnout surged, the professors found, with nearly half of people with disabilities among the voting eligible population (49.3%) voting, up from almost 41% in 2014’s midterms. About half of voters with disabilities lean Democratic and about 42% favor Republicans, according to a 2016 report from the Pew Research Center. (The Pew Charitable Trusts funds the center and Stateline.)

“The fact that people with disabilities tend to be older and older people are more susceptible to COVID, makes this election an issue of health care,” Schur said, which also is likely to drive up voting.

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Elaine S. Povich
Elaine S. Povich

Elaine S. Povich covers consumer affairs for Stateline. Povich has reported for Newsday, the Chicago Tribune and United Press International.