Washington, D.C., March 17 – After an unprecedented election season, Rutgers University’s Program for Disability Research and the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) recently released a study of the voting accessibility of the 2020 elections. This study highlighted the differences between the voting experience of individuals living with and without disabilities. The report found that even in the unprecedented circumstances of the 2020 election, voters with disabilities were better accommodated than in the 2012 election. The study’s findings also shine a light on how much our nation still needs to grow to make sure that individuals living with disabilities can equitably cast their ballots.
Growth and Improvements Since the 2012 Election
While the COVID-19 pandemic forced more than 65 million Americans to cast their ballots by mail in 2020, this report highlighted that the voting accessibility of the 2020 election significantly improved since 2012. The shift to mail-in voting increased electoral participation for voters with disabilities. The disability community reported having 15 percent fewer incidences of voting difficulties in 2020 compared to 2012. This data is encouraging because 74 percent of all voters with disabilities voted by mail or early in-person during the 2020 election. Even though the majority of individuals with disabilities voted by mail in 2020, there was still a large group that voted in person. Luckily, individuals with disabilities who voted in person also reported having 12 percent fewer incidences of voting difficulties in 2020.
In addition to voters with disabilities having fewer voting difficulties, the accessibility of the 2020 election also improved in other noticeable ways. To begin with, fewer individuals with disabilities reported needing assistance to be able to cast their vote in 2020 compared to 2012. Specifically, only 6 percent of in-person voters needed assistance, and only 5 percent of mail-in voters needed assistance. These numbers dropped from 30 percent and 11 percent in 2012. Additionally, 82 percent of in-person voters with disabilities reported that their voting experience was very easy. This is significant because this perceived ease of voting has improved by 6 percent since 2012, and it was nearly identical to voters without disabilities in 2020. Finally, voters with disabilities also said that election officials were very respectful toward them, and most individuals reported they received sufficient accessible information on their possible voting options.
Issues and Differences Still Present in the 2020 Election
Even though voting accessibility has improved since 2012, there are still substantial differences in the equity of voting opportunity and access when comparing individuals with disabilities to their nondisabled peers. Specifically, voters with disabilities still encounter nearly twice as many voting difficulties as voters without disabilities, among both in-person and mail voters. Additionally, voters without disabilities were also able to vote independently without any difficulty at a much higher rate compared to voters with disabilities. It is also disappointing to note that 17 percent of voters with disabilities that needed assistance at the polls did not receive it. Finally, even though people with disabilities followed politics more and expressed more political interest than people without disabilities in 2020, people with disabilities still voted at a 7 percent lower rate than Americans without disabilities.
Voting difficulties occurred most frequently among people with vision and cognitive disabilities. These groups had the lowest voter turnout compared to all other disability types. Additionally, 30 percent of voters with cognitive disabilities reported having difficulty at polling places, and 22 percent of voters with low vision had problems with a mail ballot. Individuals with vision and cognitive impairments also had the lowest rates of being able to vote independently without difficulty.
Where Do We Go From Here?
While it is encouraging to see that voters with disabilities had fewer difficulties at the polls in 2020, these results must be taken with a grain of salt. When hearing these statistics, one might be quick to assume that these improvements might simply be the result of better polling place accessibility. However, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely responsible for the drop in voting difficulties because the pandemic forced most high-risk voters to vote by mail and individuals with less severe disabilities to vote in person in 2020. This composition change of voters at the polls is likely the reason why there were fewer reported difficulties among voters with disabilities. Since about 50 percent of individuals with disabilities would prefer to vote in person in the next election, work still needs to be done to improve voting accessibility for all individuals living with disabilities.
Additionally, even if voting accessibility at the polls is significantly improved, individuals with disabilities face many other roadblocks that hinder their political participation. Specifically, individuals with disabilities have lower employment rates, access to personal transportation, income, and education levels. These factors are all underlying reasons why the disability community votes at a lower rate than the rest of the population. Moving forward, elected officials, policymakers, and disability organizations need to find a way to address these issues and make systematic changes if our nation wants to see better voter turnout from the disability community.
Looking to the Future
Since more than 25 percent of adults in the United States have some type of disability, these findings need to be acted upon to ensure that voters with disabilities have more opportunities to accessibly exercise their right to vote. If given the opportunity, the approximately 38 million eligible voters with disabilities have the power to impact and swing elections for years to come. It is worth noting that Joe Biden was elected the 46th President of the United States in large part because his campaign prioritized outreach to minority voters. Black votes in Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania helped put Biden over the top in those states, as did Hispanic votes in Arizona. Further, the Biden-Harris campaign prioritized, in an unprecedented fashion, connecting with the more than 38.3 million people with disabilities eligible to vote in the 2020 election.
The findings of the EAC/Rutgers University echoes many of the trends that RespectAbility saw in its own polling last year. COVID, the economy and access to healthcare motivated voters with disabilities to cast their ballots. Finding and motivating these voters will be a crucial strategy for future candidates for public office if they want to win. More details and in-depth data can be found on RespectAbility’s website here.