Column: We must make it easier for people with disabilities to vote

November 2, 2020 7:27 am

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Last month, I set out to join millions of Michiganders in voting early. I had confirmed well in advance that I was registered to vote at my address in Kalamazoo Township. I had made thoughtful decisions about how I’d vote. But I got to my polling place and could not vote — because the site had no Voter Assist Terminal (VAT).

Thousands of voters like me with visual impairments depend on a VAT, a device that reads the ballot and allows us to mark it independently and in privacy. Federal law requires VATs, like ramps and elevators, to assure equality for people with disabilities. 

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in four U.S. adults has a disability — which means over 2 million Michigan voters. It’s simple: the law requires that disabled people receive equal access to voting, like every other public service. VATs are only one kind of accommodation; other voters may need a wheelchair-accessible entrance, for example. Yet a 2017 government study found only about a third of polling places had a voting station compliant with federal requirements.

When I found no VAT at the polling place Oct. 14, the offense was all the greater because the same thing happened in the primary last summer. I knew my rights when I went to vote in the primary. I calmly educated the officials present. That could not make a VAT magically appear, however. Instead, I had to resort to sacrificing my privacy: a friend read the ballot aloud and marked it for me.

Because I’ve worked on electoral campaigns for years, I knew the law allowed for this. But doubtless other voters with disabilities are deterred from voting altogether if they and the poll workers don’t know what is allowed and what they are entitled to.

Even for me, a highly knowledgeable voter, the struggle to vote in August was epic. Five days later, staff called to let me know they had given me the wrong ballot. I had to get a new one, vote again by mail, and was anxious until I confirmed it was received on the last day before the election. I was even more alarmed when I went Oct. 14 to vote early in person and once again there was no VAT — even after I had raised the issue at Kalamazoo Township board meetings.

My 2020 voting odyssey has a happy ending: a week later, I went back and used a VAT that officials had obtained. I even received a letter of apology. But how many voters have the time to handle errors like this? Furthermore, the clerk’s letter said election officials got very little guidance from the Bureau of Elections on fair processes for voters with disabilities. This is unacceptable.

Are one quarter of all voters second-class citizens? My experience is far from unique. As part of a get-out-the-vote campaign, I’ve been in touch with dozens of voters in recent weeks. I and my colleagues have heard from many people who never received absentee ballots they requested and could not get through to their clerks to request replacements. 

During a pandemic, that means people with mobility challenges or immunity issues will not be able to vote. And of course there is considerable overlap between losing one’s chance to vote due to disability and for other reasons such as understaffing in low-income areas. 

All evidence suggests that voting turnout in 2020 will be at record levels. It is a disgrace that so many people whose voices matter cannot share in determining our future. I urge every single official in Michigan to make real the promise of voting for all — regardless of disability.

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Nicki Hurley
Nicki Hurley

Nicki Hurley is a disability advocate, a social work graduate student and currently serving as a field representative for Detroit Disability Power.