Unjustifiable Barriers: Voting As an American With Disabilities

A man in a wheelchair is looking up at a ballot box out of his reach. Text of multiple lawsuits over barriers for those with disabilities are dispersed in the background, all overlayed in blue.

As of 2016, just 17% of U.S. polling locations were fully accessible.

Given this state of inaccessibility, voters with disabilities, particularly those with ambulatory disabilities, are more likely to utilize mail-in ballots than voters without disabilities. The community’s reliance on mail-in voting puts them at a higher risk for disenfranchisement as their ballots are more likely to navigate harmful administrative hurdles like signature matching, shortened mail-in ballot return windows and the lack of accessible electronic ballots. 

The abundance of obstacles is often a result of the way mail-in voting is treated by state lawmakers and how accessibility within the electoral process is an afterthought at best. 

In Wisconsin, for example, although the right to vote is recognized as a constitutional right, voting absentee is treated legislatively as “a privilege exercised wholly outside the traditional safeguards of the polling place.” An ongoing lawsuit, which challenges this discriminatory discrepancy and the state’s absentee voting procedure, points out that for some Wisconsinites, particularly those with disabilities, “voting absentee is the only form of voting that is reasonably available to them.” 

By differentiating between in-person and mail-in voting, the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature has opted to treat voters without disabilities as more worthy than voters with disabilities.  

Beyond the Wisconsin litigation, lawsuits in three other states are currently fighting to improve access to the ballot box for millions of Americans with disabilities.   

In Alabama, a visual impairment may mean that your right to cast a private ballot goes unheeded by the state. 

Alabama exceeds the national average of residents with visual impairments. However, its mail-in programs in Tuscaloosa, Mobile and Jefferson counties require blind voters and voters with disabilities to seek another person’s assistance to complete a paper ballot — allegedly in violation of the state constitution, which asserts: “every voter in Alabama . . . [has] the right to vote a secret ballot, and that ballot shall be kept secret and inviolate.”

Seeking to remedy this, four voters who are blind or have a print disability along with the National Federation of the Blind of Alabama filed a lawsuit in October against the absentee election managers for Tuscaloosa, Mobile and Jefferson counties challenging the state’s inaccessible absentee voting system for those who are blind or have print disabilities.

Print disabilities are disabilities that interfere with a person’s ability to read, mark and handle printed paper documents. The plaintiffs all use Alabama’s mail-in ballot program, but it requires them to have the assistance of another person to complete their paper ballot. 

One way for blind voters or voters with print disabilities to vote without the assistance of another person is to use accessible electronic ballots. As the lawsuit points out, Alabama already makes absentee ballots available electronically to citizens living overseas and in the military, but does not currently allow voters with print disabilities to vote electronically. 

In Kansas, a 2021 law takes aim at voters with disabilities by criminalizing ballot assistance and more. 

In 2021, a lawsuit was brought by the League of Women Voters of Kansas, Loud Light, Kansas Appleseed and Topeka Independent Resource Center challenging a voter suppression law, which criminalizes individuals for helping other voters with a litany of tasks such as requesting a mail-in ballot, limits the third-party organizations’ ability to collect mail-in ballots, restricts advocacy organizations from helping voters, imposes a standardless signature verification requirement and more. The plaintiffs argue that the new law violates the Kansas Constitution by unduly burdening Kansans’ right to vote.

In Kansas, more than 51% of voters with disabilities vote by mail as compared to 44% of voters with no disability increasing the risk that someone with a disability will have their valid vote go uncounted. 

Additionally, as the petition mentions, a signature matching requirement for mail-in ballots is likely to lead to higher rates of disenfranchisement for voters with disabilities as they are “particularly likely to have greater signature variability and therefore are especially likely to have their properly cast ballots rejected.” 

The law also limits the collection of mail-in ballots for any stakeholder — whether an individual or organization — to ten, which severely hinders the efforts of advocacy groups like those involved in the lawsuit to support voters with disabilities who are unable to get to the polls. 

Ultimately, the fight for access to the democratic process in Kansas also issues a critical reminder: “These burdens [do] not fall equally on all… voters.”   

Like Kansas, Mississippi also limits ballot assistance, regardless of its impact on its residents with disabilities. 

This spring, Disability Rights Mississippi, the League of Women Voters of Mississippi, a voter and two individuals who provide voter assistance filed a lawsuit challenging the newly enacted Senate Bill 2358, which “restricts voters with disabilities from having a person of their choice assist them in submitting their completed” mail-in ballots. This requirement prevents voters from choosing an assistant based solely on who they trust the most with the “right which is the muscle of our republic.”   

More specifically, the plaintiffs allege that the challenged law — which makes it harder for voters to cast their ballots and “also risks disenfranchising entirely blind, disabled, or low-literacy voters” — violates a lesser-known provision of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) — Section 208.

Section 208 of the VRA guarantees that “[a]ny voter who requires assistance to vote by reason of blindness, disability, or inability to read or write may be given assistance by a person of the voter’s choice” so long as the assistor is not the “the voter’s employer or agent of that employer or officer or agent of the voter’s union.”

Under S.B. 2358, only election officials, postal workers, family members, household members or caregivers can assist voters with disabilities in returning their completed mail-in ballots. 

As the complaint points out, “not every voter is able to or will choose to rely on a narrow set of individuals chosen for them by the government.” Any violation carries the risk of the same penalties as a conviction for voter intimidation and is likely to have a chilling effect on those willing to assist. 

Thanks to this lawsuit, the discriminatory law is currently temporarily blocked. However, Mississippi’s attorney general and secretary of state — both Republicans — have appealed the order granting the injunction to the infamous and highly conservative U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.      

The “unjustifiable barriers” borne by voters with disabilities across the country should not need to be dismantled through litigation.

From the varied training of poll workers to the vulnerable experience of self-disclosing the nature of one’s disability and counties’ differing accommodations, many voters with disabilities don’t know what experience awaits them at a polling location — again, if they are able to get to their polling place — which is one of the many reasons why mail-in voting is an incredible key to civic engagement.

All of these obstacles add up. A Rutgers University study found that if citizens with disabilities voted at the same rate as citizens without disabilities, there would be about 1.75 million more voters.

Every American voter — no matter their background — deserves to be able to cast their ballot in the manner that works best for them, whether it is by mail, during early voting, via ballot collection or on Election Day.