Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Disabled and elderly voters face new hurdles at polls

Photo by Jeremy Knop/News21
Sami McGinnis of Mesa, Ariz., votes by absentee ballot because she has impaired vision. McGinnis said she would prefer to vote in person if she were physically able.

Editor’s note: This report is part of a project on voting rights in America produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.

Sami McGinnis remembers walking into a polling place and casting her vote for the first time.

“It was a wonderful feeling to have that freedom,” she said.

McGinnis, 67, whose vision is impaired, gave up that freedom eight years ago after her husband died. That’s when she first voted by absentee ballot. Having no family near her Mesa, Ariz., residence, she found it difficult arranging transportation — especially on Election Day.

She wishes it were possible for her to vote physically inside a polling place because she questions whether her absentee ballot is counted.

“It’s better than nothing,” she said, “but … it’s not the same.”

One in nine voting-age Americans is disabled, according to Census data. Of the 17 percent of voting-age Americans who are 65 years or older, at least 36 percent are disabled.

At a time when 37 states have considered photo ID legislation, some disabled and elderly Americans may face difficulty voting this November because they often don’t have a valid driver’s license. The result is that voter turnout among these groups likely will decrease, according to Rutgers University research.

“Voting is a big deal. It’s a big highlight of their years,” said Daniel Kohrman, a senior attorney for AARP in Washington, D.C.

“It’s really unfortunate, and indeed tragic, that this emphasis on restricting participation is presented in so many states,” Kohrman added.

Eighteen percent of Americans over 65 do not have a photo ID, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, a public policy group that opposed many of the voting rule changes nationally. The Census estimates at least 7 million seniors don’t have driver’s licenses.

Many people with disabilities also don’t have a driver’s license. Beyond physical disabilities, persons can have learning disabilities — dyslexia, for example — or poor hand-eye coordination.

“They’ve stopped driving because of vision or reflex issues. They, for reasons of various disability issues, have moved in with family who drive them around, or they’ve moved into an assisted living center,” said Jim Dickson, leader of the Disability Vote Project. The nonpartisan project of the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of People With Disabilities, encourages political participation by those with disabilities.

AARP has opposed voter ID legislation in Missouri, Michigan, Indiana and Minnesota because the organization says “states should not impose unreasonable identification requirements that discourage or prevent citizens from voting.”

Voter ID requirements aren’t the only problem disabled and elderly people may face at the polls. People in these groups often have trouble accessing traditional polling places.

All polls are supposed to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. Among other things, the sweeping law says that people with disabilities shall not face discrimination at the polls. But, just under one-third of polling places are 100 percent barrier-free, according to a 2009 Government Accountability Office study of the 2008 election.

Many states skirt the accessibility of polls by allowing absentee voting, mail voting or voting from curbsides, where a poll worker comes to a disabled person’s car with a ballot.

All states allow absentee and mail voting, but not all — Tennessee, for example — allow curbside voting.

“People with disabilities should have the same options as everyone else has. Voting in a polling places is an important and symbolic ritual,” said Lisa Schur, a Rutgers University associate professor who researches disabilities issues in employment and the ADA impact on public policy.

Leaving the disabled with only alternative voting methods “sends a clear message that people with disabilities are not fully welcome in the political sphere,” she said.

The convenience of absentee voting is appealing to Karin Kellas of Glendale, Ariz. She suffered a spinal cord injury as a result of a rollover car accident in 1966. In the ’90s, her legs were amputated above the knee.

Photo by Jeremy Knop/News21
Karin Kellas of Glendale, Ariz., prefers voting by absentee ballot so she can volunteer at polling places on Election Day.

“I’ve heard a lot of [disabled] people feel their voice doesn’t count,” she said. “We need to make our opinions known and vote because that’s how we make any kind of change.”

Kellas votes absentee so she can skip the lines and volunteer to work the polls. If she wanted to vote in a traditional polling place, she’d find a way to get there as she did in the past.

Inaccessible polling places can have “psychological consequences that say, ‘I don’t really want you here,’” Schur said.

“I see absentee voting and voting by mail as a convenience, and it can help a lot of people with disabilities,” she said, “but I don’t see it as a substitute as making polling places accessible.”

Voter turnout among disabled people is a clear reflection of that, according to a Rutgers University study from the 2008 election.

The study showed turnout among voters who have disabilities was about 7 percentage points lower than those without disabilities.

And that’s not because disabled people are less interested in voting, said Douglas Kruse, a Rutgers University professor and director of the doctoral program in industrial relations and human resources. He and Schur co-authored the study.

Kruse, who uses a wheelchair, has a doctorate in economics from Harvard University. His research has found that disabled persons are less likely to be recruited to vote or participate in political activities.

“You’re not expected to participate,” he said, adding that such an attitude “probably reflects a lot of the polling place difficulties and the message that is sent by a polling place.”

It’s important for persons with disabilities to vote because political and social issues deeply affect them, McGinnis said.

“We take the time to get to know the issues because we live them,” she said.

About this project: “Who Can Vote?” was produced by News21, a national investigative reporting project involving college journalism students across the country and headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. News21 is funded by the Carnegie Corp. of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

For the complete Voting Rights in America project, visit here.

Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/21/2012 - 09:45 am.

    Really? This is it?

    The juice has *really* been squeezed out of this meme, and it’s still getting no traction. You’d think leftists would come up with another excuse to protect voter fraud….if they had one.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/21/2012 - 10:22 am.

      You’d think

      That “rightists” would come up with a better story about the existence of the mythical “voter fraud”…if there is one.

      That being said, this particular issue has become suddenly more important to me. Even as it was obvious that the elderly and poor were likely to be disenfranchised as a result of the “voter fraud” witch hunt, it didn’t occur to me that “accessibility” didn’t always actually mean accessibility. I am now in a position to look at these things more closely, as my father will unexpectedly be needing accessibility. The question of whether absentee ballots “count” will be an issue, as well.

      Mr. Swift, if you think that vote dilution is a problem, then you should be extremely concerned about vote suppression. Somehow, though, I don’t think that “vote dilution” is the problem. The dilution that many of the GOP are worried about has nothing to do with the vote, itself, but rather with to whom the vote is cast. There really is no other plausible rationale.

      • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 08/21/2012 - 10:47 am.

        Fraud and “myth”

        Another meme that has gone down in flames.

        Leftist apologists remind me nothing as much as that old Monty Python skit… “There’s not *much* fraud in it!” It’s quite embarrassing, actually.

        The public has swept the smarmy protestations of the pro-fraud crowd aside, Rachel. Voter ID is a done deal, so leftists will just have to learn to deal with it.

        • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/21/2012 - 11:07 am.


          So…provide an example of “voter fraud” that can be prevented by voter ID. No one else has been able to provide an example that would be prevented by voter ID. I doubt you have any more knowledge than the GOP handlers that have been tasked to finding such fraud to prove it. Like unicorns, while I can’t say for certain “voter fraud” DOESN’T exist, it can still be classified as a myth. The difference is that the myth of unicorns might actually be based on the existence of actual tangible animals (e.g., narwhals, rhinoceri, or single-horned goats).

          Oh, and just because you say so, doesn’t mean anything has actually gone down in flames. You don’t have that kind of power. Besides, I don’t apologize for being “leftist.” Nor am I rationalizing something controversial. Being an “apologist” doesn’t mean what you think it does. You just think that it sounds evil and “communist,” so you use it. On the other hand, it would be appropriate to call you a Voter ID apologist.

  2. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 08/21/2012 - 06:38 pm.

    I keep hearing about “voter fraud” from right-wing commentators, but they never state how they learned of it, where it occurred, when it occurred, or how many people were involved.

    They sound increasingly like the guy who knew someone who knew someone who knew someone who was collecting welfare checks from three different states.

Leave a Reply