COVID-19 and the Disability Vote: A New Report from AAPD
September 2020 | By Lilian Aluri | Voting Engagement, Policy, and Outreach Consultant at AAPD
The American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) recently published a report on COVID-19 and the Disability Vote, which explores the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on voting accessibility. Created in collaboration with many disability and voting rights advocates, the report also provides key policy recommendations to ensure that voters with disabilities have full access to our democracy in 2020 and beyond. Below, you will find the summary of the report, and you can read the full report here. We are working on a plain language summary that will be coming soon!
COVID-19 poses a threat to America’s democracy. Millions of Americans have and will continue to turn to absentee and remote voting options in the 2020 general election to prevent being exposed to, catching, or spreading COVID-19. While many voters with disabilities regularly face accessibility barriers and other forms of voter suppression, COVID-19 has made voting even less accessible. People with disabilities are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and may also experience additional health concerns during the pandemic.[i] At least 40% of deaths from COVID-19 in the United States, a number which has passed 200,000, occurred in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, where many people with disabilities reside.[ii] The pandemic is not only disproportionately harming and killing people with disabilities, but it is also impacting disabled people of color at an alarming rate, as systemic racism continues to create barriers in accessing health care in the United States.[iii]
Because of the pandemic and accessibility barriers in voting by mail, many voters with disabilities face an impossible choice between protecting their health and casting their ballot this year. While the challenges to voting faced by people with disabilities are as diverse as the disability community itself, one of the key issues for voting during the COVID-19 pandemic is the inherent inaccessibility of paper ballots, used to vote by mail, that must be completed, printed, folded, signed, and mailed or delivered in-person. Voters with print disabilities such as blindness, low vision, learning disabilities, or dexterity disabilities are among the many voters for whom this process poses significant barriers. Voters that do cast a ballot in person face hours-long lines, even when trying to avoid lines by voting early.[iv]
Additionally, barriers in accessing accurate elections information and receiving assistance when voting have heightened during the pandemic. For example, deaf and hard of hearing voters who rely at least partially on lipreading for communication will face communication barriers at the polls where poll workers are required to wear masks, and information available for voters in American Sign Language (ASL) is limited. And for voters with disabilities living in long-term care facilities and other congregate settings, restrictive visitor policies, established to prevent the spread of COVID-19, make it even harder to register and vote safely during the pandemic.
At the time of this report, five states, including Texas which has one of the largest populations of people with disabilities in the United States, are still restricting mail ballots to those with a valid excuse to vote absentee. While these states allow the presence of disability to be a valid excuse to vote absentee, people must still prove their disabilities in some states in order to be eligible to vote by mail. Meanwhile, states that have expanded absentee voting are struggling to handle the increased capacity of mail-in ballots, and recent reorganization at the United States Postal Service (USPS) has delayed mail delivery and created doubt in vote-by-mail nationwide.[v]
Eligible voters have the right to a private, independent, and accessible vote, and voters should not have to risk their own health and the health of loved ones to cast their ballot in 2020. Local Boards of Elections and Congress are running out of time to do what needs to be done to protect our democracy during the 2020 elections. These nine policy recommendations are critical actions that states, county elections offices, and the federal government must take to combat ableist discrimination, politicization, and false information that threaten our elections during this pandemic.
Policy Recommendations for States and Counties
1. Expand vote-by-mail, no-excuse absentee voting, and online voter registration.
Ensuring any voter can register to vote and cast their ballot remotely, without an excuse, keeps voters safe by enabling them to vote without risking catching COVID-19. More people voting remotely also keeps the people that do vote in-person safe by reducing crowds and lines at polling sites. Vote-by-mail is a historically secure and nonpartisan voting method used regularly by many states. In addition to allowing all voters to cast a ballot by mail, states must make vote-by-mail as accessible as possible by removing the requirement in some states for voters to have a witness sign their ballot or for their ballot signature to match a previous signature. Providing pre-stamped return envelopes with ballots will also help make vote-by-mail convenient and accessible for voters.
2. Allow electronic ballot delivery to enable voters with print disabilities to mark their ballot digitally.
Over half of the states already allow voters with disabilities to receive and complete their ballot electronically before printing and returning their ballot. Expanding this option will enable voters with print disabilities to complete a mail-in ballot independently and privately, when paper ballots are otherwise inaccessible.
3. Make in-person voting as safe as possible.
Given the inherent inaccessibility of paper ballots to voters with print disabilities, several states’ restrictions on eligibility for mail-in ballots, fear of delays when mailing through USPS, and a lack of reliable postal service access, a significant number of voters will still have to—or choose to—vote in-person. Early voting and expanded voting hours are two ways to reduce the traffic at polling sites and minimize the risk of voters spreading or catching COVID-19 when voting in-person. While polling places are already legally required to be accessible, 83% of polling places are still inaccessible, so states must also provide curbside voting, which allows voters to request a ballot from their car if they cannot enter the polling site.[vi] Finally, making sure polling sites have enough personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks, will help reduce risk of COVID-19 for everyone voting in-person.
4. Educate voters on their voting rights, options, and safety.
As states rapidly and frequently change their voting rules and options, and many face lawsuits addressing voter suppression, voters are faced with confusing and evolving information. States and local elections offices need to actively reach out to voters with clear, accessible, and current information in a variety of ways.
5. Ensure voters in congregate settings can register to vote and cast their ballot.
There are 2.2 million people living in nursing homes or assisted living facilities, many of which are restricting visitors due to COVID-19 and limiting residents’ ability to access necessary assistance with registering to vote and casting a ballot.[vii] States must ensure that voters in long-term care facilities and other congregate settings, such as hospitals, can receive assistance with their ballot, if they so choose. States must also make sure that local election officials are allowed to enter congregate settings to assist residents with the voting process, while maintaining proper social distancing precautions.
6. Explore, innovate, and test electronic, remote voting methods.
Many states already use completely electronic voting for military and overseas voters in compliance with the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA). Several states use the same electronic system to deliver a digital and accessible ballot to voters with disabilities. Continuing to test and invest in innovating electronic voting technology can provide secure and fully accessible remote voting options so that no voter is denied the right to an independent and private vote.
Policy Recommendations for the Federal Government
7. Ensure states have funding to make voting safe during the pandemic.
Ensuring safe in-person voting, expanding remote voting, making voting more accessible, and educating voters takes capacity and funding that many states do not have. The federal government has only provided 10% of the $4 billion of the funding states need to support voting access and safety during the pandemic, as estimated by the Brennan Center for Justice.[viii]
8. Pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2020 in order to ensure equitable elections now and in the future.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would reinstate the requirement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) for states with a history of voting rights violations to get clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice when changing voting practices. This critical part of the VRA, struck down by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder, ensures that states do not create discriminatory voting practices that disenfranchise marginalized communities.[ix]
9. Restore the full capacity of the United States Postal Service (USPS) to ensure that votes cast by mail will be delivered on time and counted.
Untimely reorganization at the USPS has worsened mail delivery delays nationwide, casting doubt on the efficacy of voting by mail and threatening to disenfranchise voters relying on remote voting by mail during the pandemic. Congress must hold the Post Office accountable to undo the changes that undermined mail delivery and restore the capacity of the Post Office to deliver critical election mail. The pandemic has highlighted accessibility barriers that disenfranchise voters with disabilities, but our federal, state, and local governments have the tools and information needed to remove these barriers and can do so by adopting the recommendations outlined above. Our election officials and local leaders must act now to safeguard our democracy and make sure that voting is as accessible, safe, and secure as possible.
[i] Stephen Fowler, “’It Was Very Chaotic’: Long Lines, Voting Machine Issues Plague Georgia Primary.” National Public Radio, June 9, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/06/09/873054620/long-lines-voting-machine-issues-plague-georgia-primary.
“1,000 Public Health Experts Urge Congress To Fund Vote by Mail and Safe In-Person Voting in November,” Center for American Progress, July 21, 2020, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/democracy/news/2020/07/21/ 487888/1000-public-health-experts-urge-congress-fund-vote-mail-safe-person-voting-november/.
“Disability and health,” World Health Organization, January 16, 2018, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/disability-and-health.
[ii] “‘A national disgrace’: 40,600 deaths tied to US nursing homes,” USA Today, June 1, 2020, https://www.usatoday. com/story/news/investigations/2020/06/01/coronavirus-nursing-home-deaths-top-40-600/5273075002/.
[iii] Samantha Artiga, Rachel Garfield, and Kendal Orgera, “Risk for Health and Economic Challenges due to COVID-19,” Kaiser Family Foundation, April 7, 2020, https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/communities-of-color-at-higher-risk-for-health-and-economic-challenges-due-to-covid-19/.
[iv] “Long lines accompany start of early voting in Virginia,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, September 18, 2020, https:// richmond.com/news/state-and-regional/govt-and-politics/long-lines-accompany-start-of-early-voting-in-virginia/article_17ec5f29-1a05-5428-ac68-ed42663dfd19.html.
[v] Erin Cox, Elise Viebeck, Jacob Bogage and Christopher Ingraham, “Postal Service warns 46 states their voters could be disenfranchised by delayed mail-in ballots,” Washington Post, August 14, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/ local/md-politics/usps-states-delayed-mail-in-ballots/2020/08/14/64bf3c3c-dcc7-11ea-8051-d5f887d73381_story.html.
[vi] “Voters with Disabilities: Observations on Polling Place Accessibility and Related Federal Guidance,” United States Government Accountability Office, October, 2017, https://www.gao.gov/assets/690/687556.pdf.
[vii] Ryan McCarthy and Jack Gillum, “Hundreds of Thousands of Nursing Home Residents May Not Be Able to Vote in November Because of the Pandemic,” ProPublica, August 26, 2020, https://www.propublica.org/article/hundreds-of-thousands-of-nursing-home-residents-may-not-be-able-to-vote-in-november-because-of-the-pandemic.
[viii] [viii] Michael Waldman, Wendy Weiser, Larry Norden Myrna Pérez, “Saving the Vote in 2020: Elections and the Coronavirus,” Brennan Center for Justice (Virtual Event Video Recording), https://www.brennancenter.org/events /saving-vote-2020-elections-and-coronavirus.
[ix] Emily Bazelon, “The Supreme Court Ruled That Voting Restrictions Were a Bygone Problem. Early Voting Results Suggest Otherwise,” New York Times, November 7, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/07/magazine/the-supreme-court-ruled-that-voting-restrictions-were-a-bygone-problem-early-voting-results-suggest-otherwise.html.