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AAPD Applauds New Department of Justice Guidance on Rights of Disabled Voters

by | Apr 20, 2024 | Press Release

For Immediate Release: April 20, 2024

Contact: Jess Davidson at jdavidson@aapd.com; 202-975-0960 

WASHINGTON, DC – On April 18, 2024, the Department of Justice (DOJ) released new guidance clarifying the scope of the Americans with Disabilities Act and other federal laws as they pertain to voting rights. The guidance covers all aspects of the voting process, from registration to casting a ballot. In this guidance, DOJ addresses several key areas where state and local governments have failed to provide equal access for disabled voters, such as the voting rights of people under guardianship, the right to voter assistance, the responsibilities of election officials regarding accessibility of polling places and election websites, and more.

“The American Association of People with Disabilities commends the Department of Justice for this expansive guidance which makes abundantly clear that in order to have a representative democracy, all aspects of the voting process must be fully accessible to the nearly 40 million eligible voters with disabilities,” said Maria Town, AAPD President and CEO.

While federal laws protecting voters with disabilities have been in place for decades, state and local election officials have in some cases failed to enforce accessibility requirements. In other instances, states and municipalities have instituted policies and practices that directly exclude disabled voters, such as passing laws that ban curbside voting. This has led to a persistent lower turnout among voters with disabilities compared to voters without disabilities: disabled voters were three times more likely to report difficulty voting in 2022 and had a 3.6% turnout gap.

This new guidance details what state and local election bodies must do under current federal election law to meet their legal obligation to provide access to voters with disabilities. 

AAPD applauds the DOJ for making clear that a person’s guardianship or disability status cannot disqualify a person from being eligible to vote. The guidance clarifies that states can not hold people with disabilities to higher standards when it comes to demonstrating their capacity to vote.

The DOJ guidance also details the responsibilities of election officials to ensure that polling places are accessible, including:

  • Being prepared to communicate through pen and paper, or provide ASL interpreters for D/deaf voters)
  • Ensuring curbside voting is available and set up to provide an equal access to information as is available inside the polling place
  • Emphasizing the ADA requirements around accessibility of the physical space and accessible voting systems

Given that in 2016, the Government Accountability Office found that 60% of polling places have at least one aspect that makes them inaccessible, this guidance is crucial for the disability community. The guidance also covers the rights of voters living in congregate settings, such as nursing homes, the accessibility of ballot drop box locations, and absentee ballots.

AAPD is relieved and grateful to see the Department of Justice comment directly on the right to voter assistance – reaffirming that voters have the right to receive assistance in all aspects of the voting process from the person of their choice. The guidance goes one crucial step further and prohibits state and local governments from implementing laws that might interfere with this right, such as laws that create criminal and financial penalties or limit voter assistance.

“Since 2021, 13 states have passed laws that criminalize voter assistance. Even in cases where the law provides an exception for voters with disabilities, like SB 1 in Alabama, we know that these harmful policies will create a chilling effect ultimately leading to increased difficulty for voters to find assistance voting or to outright disenfranchisement,” said Alexia Kemerling, REV UP Coalitions Coordinator at AAPD.

“Seeing the guidance from the DOJ feels like proof that disabled advocates are making an impact and that a true accessible democracy is within reach,” Kemerling added. “Across states, advocates with disabilities have conducted polling place accessibility audits, trained and served as poll workers, worked to ensure community members know their rights, served as plaintiffs in lawsuits challenging discriminatory laws, engaged in legislative advocacy, and more. And we’ll continue to do so every year and every election cycle to make sure every U.S. citizen who wants to vote can do so with ease.”