EXPLAINER: Voting access for people with disabilities

Charlie Carr, a white, older man, is sat in a wheelchair, among volunteers and activists wearing black t shirts with the words ADA 25 in red and blue letters.
Carr, among other disability rights activists, at the Capital Hill march commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Photo courtesy of Charlie Carr.

By Emma Picht

Boston University News Service

According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2021, 13% of the total civilian non-institutionalized population have a disability. Within that group, there are more than 39 million citizens eligible to vote in U.S. elections. Voter turnout among those with disabilities has also been on the rise since 2016, according to a study from the School of Management and Labor Relations at Rutgers University that was published after the 2020 election.

“It used to be very common to have a polling place that was just not accessible,” said Charlie Carr, the legislative liaison for the Disability Policy Consortium. “Making it accessible would be to have a worker come out and fill out your ballot with you. So not only couldn’t you get in, but you also had to share who you voted for and what you voted for.” 

Carr serves as the go-between for his organization and legislators to help bills get written and passed. Carr is also an activist who, during his youth, was institutionalized for seven years. He eventually fought his way out and was an early founding member of the Boston Center for Independent Living in 1974.

Every year people with disabilities face the extreme costs of housing, transportation and medical care. In order to qualify for services like Medicaid, they must already be living in poverty. 

“It’s prohibitive to have a disability from a financial standpoint, and when you need the kind of stuff that is beyond just food, but actual physical assistance, it’s very expensive,” Carr said.

“That’s why the disability community is so active in voting and ensuring that whoever is elected into public office understands what our needs are, and providing the services we need,” said Carr. “I mean, we’ve been working with Maura Healy for the last six months, and she’s going to be our next governor. And you can bet your life that she knows what we need.”

The passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 allowed voters with disabilities to pursue litigation against inaccessible polling locations with the Department of Justice, which upheld that cities held a legal obligation to accommodate disabled voters.

“Now, my experience has been pretty positive. I live in Methuen. Methuen is very accessible,” Carr said. “But it is only because of the diligence of people with disabilities and our allies.” The secretary of the Commonwealth’s website details all the accommodations readily available to Massachusetts citizens, and provides phone numbers to call to make suggestions for future elections.

“Mail-in voting, early voting, those are really helpful. But early mail-in ballots weren’t accessible to people who were blind until the Secretary of the State faced the threat of a lawsuit,” Carr said.

Nowadays, clerks are required to troubleshoot accessibility issues and call the secretary of state whenever there is a problem. As of June this year, a provision in the VOTES Act allows those with disabilities to vote through a secure online portal. Voters could apply to register for the online system up until Oct. 29. 

Carr uses a machine called an Auto-MARK to vote. In Massachusetts, these machines are available at most polling stations. The machine electronically marks ballots for those who have limited physical movement or who face language barriers. With electronic systems, there is always a risk of malfunction. However, poll workers are now trained to assist those who need accommodations and are required to troubleshoot any problems with those accommodations. They must call the secretary of the commonwealth if they face any problems with providing access to the voting booth. 

Carr reiterated that issue on the ballot is relevant to voters with disabilities because they are people first, their disability is incidental. 

“People with disabilities use public transportation all the time. We attend public schools. You know, there’s no bright line between these bread-and-butter issues,” Carr said. “You know, you’re just a disability away from joining the club, so to speak.” 

If a voter encounters any other problems while trying to vote this election day, they can request a provisional ballot to document their vote while the error is being rectified.

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