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Voters with disabilities face new ballot restrictions ahead of midterms

Within the past two years, Arizona and at least 19 other states have enacted new voting restrictions, including limits on early and mail-in voting

As voters went to the polls last month in the Texas primary, the voting rights hotline lit up at the nonprofit advocacy agency Disability Rights Texas.

Molly Broadway, the group’s training and technical support specialist, heard from some frustrated voters with disabilities who had not received their mail-in ballots on time. Others had their ballots rejected several times because of signature and personal identification requirements or fretted that new rules banning ballot assistance could make criminals out of their friends and loved ones.

Broadway and other disability rights activists have spent months educating voters about new state requirements and restrictions enacted last year by Republicans in Austin. While she helps voters with disabilities navigate these new rules and encourages them to make voting plans well ahead of Election Day, Broadway often finds herself having to emphasize that they have not lost their right to vote—it’s now just harder to exercise that right.

“It’s unfortunate,” she said. “But when you are a community that has to fight for every single advancement of your public and private existence, continuing to fight is not a new thing. It’s part of who you are. To move forward is just part of our second nature.”

Voting rights activists argue the new state restrictions passed in the name of ballot security have made it harder for all voters, including those with disabilities, to cast a mail-in ballot. Indeed, Texas election officials rejected nearly 23,000 mail-in ballots during the March primary—around 13% of total ballots cast. The typical rejection rate in Texas primaries is less than 2%.

Around the country, new voting restrictions driven by former President Donald Trump’s lie about widespread voter fraud have complicated an already difficult process for 38 million disabled voters—a diverse community with differing physical, sensory and cognitive abilities.

When Georgia banned handing out water in voting lines, and Wisconsin banned ballot drop boxes and absentee voting assistance, and Florida limited absentee ballot collection efforts, voters with disabilities faced additional hurdles that have and will continue to prevent many from exercising their constitutional right. Last year, 19 states enacted new voting restrictions, including limits on early and mail-in voting. Several states, including Arizona and Georgia, have added more restrictions this year.

Advocates for voters with disabilities have fought these measures through lawsuits and broad voter education efforts. That has proven challenging, however, as advocates navigate sudden shifts as measures make their way through the judicial system and undergo last-minute legislative changes during the primary season.

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Taking away voting options is undoubtedly hurting a population that makes up a sixth of eligible American voters, said Rebecca Cokley, U.S. disability rights program officer at the Ford Foundation, a New York-based philanthropy that has provided grants to organizations that lead voting efforts for disabled people.

“Any attempt to suppress the vote of any community is going to disproportionately harm the disabled community,” she said. “It’s the most fundamental right in our democracy.”

The last presidential election brought major progress for voters with disabilities, Cokley said. Not only did Democratic presidential candidates court disabled voters to a level they had not done in past elections, but because of the pandemic, states also made the voting process more accessible by providing more options. The disability community had record turnout in 2020, with 62% of voter-eligible adults with disabilities casting ballots, according to the Program for Disability Research at Rutgers University.

Adding drop boxes, no-excuse absentee voting, early voting and extended registration periods all benefited the disability community, Cokley said. But new restrictions, some of which she described as “downright inhumane,” threaten that progress.

In Wisconsin, the state Supreme Court is allowing a lower court ban on ballot drop boxes—or any assistance with turning in an absentee ballot—to stay in place as a voting lawsuit progresses. A conservative law firm sued the state, arguing that such “ballot harvesting” was illegal in the state. That firm, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, argued that while voting is a constitutional right, there must be safeguards when voters cast ballots outside of a polling place. State law, the firm argues, allows only the voter to return his or her absentee ballot.

The high court’s decision was a major blow for disabled voters, said Barbara Beckert, director of external advocacy for southeastern Wisconsin for the nonprofit advocacy group Disability Rights Wisconsin.

Beckert has heard from voters with cerebral palsy and other physical disabilities that don’t allow them to drive to their polling places who are now worried they will have a difficult time getting their ballots to a mailbox. Giving their ballots to a trusted friend, neighbor or family member is now illegal. About a third of Wisconsinites of all ages are nondrivers, according to the state’s Department of Transportation.

“They’re shocked. They’re stunned,” Beckert said. “They just cannot believe they cannot have someone assist them to put something in the mail because they have a disability. The barriers that are in place right now, we’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s unconscionable.”

The state Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case sometime this summer, ahead of the August primary. Oral arguments begin this week. Until then, her organization will advise Wisconsin’s 1,850 municipal election clerks on how they can better accommodate disabled voters in their communities.

Stephanie Birmingham, a Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, resident who has osteogenesis imperfecta (also known as brittle bones), is a nondriver, uses a power wheelchair and relies on others to get around. When she lived in Green Bay in 2019, and before she knew absentee voting was an option, she drove her wheelchair to her neighborhood polling place to vote in the mayoral election. The limited available sidewalks were still covered in snow that hadn’t been shoveled, forcing her to use her wheelchair in the street. She recalls hoping and praying that passing drivers saw and avoided her.

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In recent elections, she has given her father her absentee ballot to turn in for her. But that is now illegal. She hopes she doesn’t have to go through “a jungle gym” again to vote. Birmingham, who is also an advocacy coordinator at Options for Independent Living, one facility in a national network of 500 Independent Living centers that assist and connect disabled people with services, including voter education, said she doesn’t understand why lawmakers don’t take disabled voters’ concerns to heart.

“People with disabilities aren’t voting absentee to conspire to commit fraud,” she said. “This is just further disenfranchisement.”

In Florida, voting rights advocates are still digesting a recent court victory. A federal court last month struck down parts of a restrictive voting law that Republicans in the state enacted last year, including provisions that limited the use of ballot drop boxes, water distribution in voting lines and voter registration efforts by third-party organizations. When the measure passed, Republican Speaker Chris Sprowls said the new law would ensure “elections will remain accessible, efficient and secure.”

There are still restrictions in place that concern Olivia Babis, senior public policy analyst for Disability Rights Florida, a nonpartisan advocacy group.

Florida, she pointed out, still bans the collection of absentee ballots beyond immediate family members and no more than two non-family members, which could harm voting efforts at long-term care facilities. There also are institutional barriers that the group aims to solve, including burdensome voter ID requirements and inaccessible county election websites that do not accommodate screen readers that blind people use.

“We do sense some frustration from people with disabilities,” Babis said. “Unfortunately, our population is used to it, and they are determined to vote no matter what.”

Even before the wave of voting restrictions swept across the country after the 2020 presidential election, voters with disabilities faced tremendous hurdles to cast a ballot. Many voters found polling places inaccessible, some lacking wheelchair ramps. Places of worship, which often serve as polling places, are not subject to federal accessibility requirements.

Inside polling places, many other voters with disabilities found accessible voting machines turned off or poll workers untrained in how to operate those voting machines. Some states allow voters with disabilities to download electronic ballots, fill them in using accessible technology, print the ballot and mail them to election clerks. But the practice isn’t common, and electronic return of ballots by disabled voters remains illegal throughout the country due to security concerns.

Advocates for disabled voters are pleased they have bolstered partnerships with other civil rights groups in recent years, especially groups fighting for racial justice. The disability community is not a monolith, as people with disabilities also may come from marginalized racial communities, said Shira Wakschlag, senior director for legal advocacy and general counsel at The Arc, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“This is an unprecedented attack on voting rights,” she said. “But these attempts to suppress the vote have provided new opportunities to find meaningful ways to partner in these communities and shed light on ways in which they disenfranchise many overlapping communities.”

Joining a coalition of voting rights groups, The Arc is suing Georgia and Texas over provisions in recent voting laws that they argue disenfranchise voters with disabilities by not offering ballot drop boxes, limiting early voting times or adding new penalties for voter assistance.

Other civil rights groups, such as Spread the Vote and VoteRiders, are working with the disability community and other marginalized groups to help voters get access to state-approved identification to ensure they can vote under new restrictive rules.

But it is still challenging for groups that are leading voter education efforts ahead of November’s midterm election, including REV UP, a 44-state network run by the American Association of People with Disabilities. It will take a lot of work this year to analyze all of the changes made to state voting laws and circulate that information to voters with disabilities, said Lilian Aluri, the REV UP coordinator.

“We’ve gotten a lot of interest and alarm around these voting bills,” she said. “Our work is cut out for us to actually make sure that disabled voters can vote this year.”

Stateline is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of the Pew Charitable Trusts that provides daily reporting and analysis on trends in state policy.

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Several states have added new restrictions that make it harder for disabled voters to cast a ballot.