State efforts to restrict voting access have dominated election news this year. Since the beginning of 2011, legislators in 41 state governments have introduced at least 180 bills that wouldmake it harder to register or to vote. At least 25 laws and two executive actions have been enacted, affecting 19 states. These include laws requiring proof of citizenship or photo identification to register or to vote; limiting voting registration opportunities; and reducing early and absentee voting.
The U.S. Department of Justice and voting rights advocates have challenged these laws for violating the Voting Rights Act and the National Voter Registration Act, and raised concerns about their discriminatory impact on low-income people, and racial and ethnic minorities. But what hasn't been mentioned in the media coverage, and what seems of little concern to supporters or opponents of these laws, is their discriminatory impact on one of the country's largest minorities: people with disabilities.
At least 36 million people with disabilities -- more than 11 percent of the population - live in the United States. Adults with disabilities face high rates of unemployment and poverty relative to their non-disabled counterparts. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one-third of working age (21-64 years old) adults with disabilities are unemployed; and 27 percent of working age adults with disabilities live below the poverty line -- twice the rate of people without disabilities.
Many people with disabilities already face physical and other barriers when they seek to exercise their right to vote. Federal laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Help America Vote Act require accessible voting systems, to ensure equal access and participation for people with physical and visual disabilities. But according to a 2009 US Government Accountability Office study, more than two-thirds of polling places are not fully accessible; nearly 25 percent did not have equal access to a secret and independent ballot, and voting in a polling place, considered the "hallmarks of an effective and informed right to vote," as voting rights expert Michael Waterstone has noted.
People with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities may be barred from voting by state laws disqualifying voters judged "mentally incompetent" by a court (as permitted by 39 U.S. states,according to a study published before the 2008 election) or because election officials or service providers improperly screen out those they determine incompetent to vote.
In Virginia, for example, election officials refused to provide absentee ballots for people in state psychiatric facilities because they read the state law to authorize such ballots only for people with physical disabilities. A 2008 study of Philadelphia nursing homes found that staff were denying residents the right to vote based on their own assessment of capacity to vote, notwithstanding that Pennsylvania law does not require that voters be deemed competent to cast a ballot.
People with disabilities are significantly less likely to vote than their non-disabled peers. A 2012 studyfound voter turnout for people with disabilities to be11 percentage points lower than for people without disabilities, leaving more than 3 million Americans with disabilities "sidelined" on Election Day.
In this context, laws imposing additional burdens threaten to further suppress political participation and voter turnout by people with disabilities.
Consider, for example, laws requiring proof of citizenship or photo ID to register or to vote. The Supreme Court has made clear that states that require government-issued IDs for voting must make them available free of charge to indigent voters. But people with disabilities still face considerable challenges. Because they are more likely to live in poverty, securing the necessary documentation to get a photo ID may be out of reach ($15-$25 for a birth certificate). Also many people with disabilities don't drive and must rely on family members, caretakers, or public transit for transportation. These problems with transportation are compounded for people in rural areas or group homes.
Rather than legislating ways to take away people's voting rights, state governments should instead be coming up with initiatives to ensure that all qualified U.S. citizens -- including people with disabilities -- can register to vote, get to the polls, and cast their ballots. States should make information about the voting process and candidates accessible to all people with disabilities, using simple language, visual aids, or oral instructions, and training local election supervisors to provide such information during the voting process.
These measures would ensure that people with disabilities can make informed decisions at the ballot box, and send a clear message that they are welcome in the political sphere, and have a say in who gets to represent their interests, like all other American citizens.
Rebecca Schleifer is the health and human rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch.