Everyone in America is facing a new barrier to voting this year: COVID-19. But if you have a disability, 2020 probably isn't the first year you've faced one obstacle or another while casting your ballot.
During the 2016 election, a whopping 83 percent of polling places posed at least one impediment for voters with disabilities — say, a pathway inaccessible to a voter in a wheelchair. And, according to a study by the Government Accountability Office, less than 40 percent of locations equipped their voting systems for people with disabilities to cast their votes privately: electronic voting systems weren't powered on, for example, or they lacked earphones, or the stations weren't big enough for a wheelchair.
It's a huge problem. Researchers at Rutgers University predict that 38.3 million people with disabilities will be eligible to vote in this year's election. That's close to 1 in every 6 voters who could have extra trouble voting because of their disability.
These barriers depend on where you are and what type of disability you have, says Michelle Bishop, the voter access and engagement manager at the National Disability Rights Network. "That's even more true, I'd say, in 2020, where we've seen a lot of change very quickly nationwide," she says.
If you're heading to vote in person on Election Day, remember: "The worst thing you could do is forfeit your right to have your voice heard," says Bishop.
Here's what to remember to make sure you can exercise that important right.
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Contact your local election official and make a plan
Step one: plan ahead and try to anticipate the barriers you might face.
First, check your polling place, which may have changed due to COVID-19. Many polling places that used to be in accessible nursing homes and long-term care facilities have been relocated — posing dilemmas for their residents and voters who relied on their accessible spaces. Your new polling station may be more or less accessible than the last one you used.
And, of course, there are other factors: "It could potentially be further away, and getting there in itself can be a barrier," says Bishop.
You can ask about that or any other concerns through your local elections office. Look up your local office through this website.
"If you're a little bit concerned about your polling place working for you, find out what else you can do," says Bishop. "In many places, you might be able to vote curbside: If you can get to your polling place, but it's difficult for you to get in and get all the way to the voting station, they might bring the ballot out to you. It might not be too late to get a mail-in ballot depending on where you are."
Bring the basics
You need all the things you usually bring when you leave the house these days. "You wouldn't show up at the grocery store completely unprepared and expect them to hand you a mask and wash your hands," says Bishop. You know the drill.
You'll also want to be prepared for long lines, just in case. If you take medication on a schedule, bring some, along with water and snacks.
Know your rights at the polls
"It's not fair, in my mind, that people with disabilities sometimes have to study these rights and be prepared to assert themselves. You shouldn't have to jump through extra hoops to be able to cast your ballot," says Bishop. "It's not right, but it is where we're at right now."
Remember these rights as you head to the polls:
The polling place must be accessible to you. Some places may offer curbside voting if their indoor space isn't accessible. An election official can help you plan for this.
The voting system must work for you, too. "Ask for that equipment if it hasn't been offered to you, and then also insist on your right to use it, if for some reason they don't have that equipment ready for you to use," says Bishop.
You can take the time that you need. Don't feel rushed.
You can bring someone with you. "That could be a family member or friend or any person of your choice," says Quinn Bradlee, co-chair and founder of Our Time, Our Vote, a voting initiative by the National Center for Learning Disabilities. The only stipulation: by law, your plus one can't be your lawyer or your union representative. If you don't have someone to bring, poll workers are required to assist you.
If you don't have what you need, let the poll workers know. Quinn Bradlee's learning disability is invisible, and he says that in order to make sure he has resources to vote — and to make sure everyone believes him — "I can't just say I have a disability. I have to be more specific."
"We do occasionally hear about poll workers questioning whether or not someone should be voting, horrifyingly, usually based on the person having an intellectual or developmental disability," says Bishop. "If you are on the voter rolls, the poll worker can't challenge that. If you are on the voter rolls, you have the right to check in and cast your ballot."
Have resources — and backup — at the ready
You'll want to come prepared with phone numbers and websites accessible to you, just in case you aren't getting the resources or the help you need.
The National Disability Rights Network has member organizations across the country. These legal advocacy providers can help if you experience trouble at the polls and aren't able to cast your ballot. Find a local organization here.
Keep this number handy: 866-OUR-VOTE. It's the Election Protection hotline from the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, created explicitly to ensure all Americans have the equal opportunity to vote. You can also use the chat function on their website. The National Association of the Deaf offers a video call hotline: 301-818-VOTE.
"If you find yourself already at the polls and you're experiencing a problem, you can use any of those contact options to get in touch with someone who will help advocate for you," says Bishop.
Don't be deterred
There's a chance you'll find a long, long line when you arrive at your polling place. "You have the right to request to be moved to the front of the line, if your disability prevents you from waiting in a long line," says Bishop. If you can't wait for hours, don't be shy about asking — it's your right.
If you run into roadblocks because the polling place is inaccessible or unprepared for voters with disabilities, find out what your options are. "Can you speak to someone in the elections office? Are you speaking to the poll supervisor?" asks Bishop. "There's always a person who's in charge of your polling place. Bring those phone numbers with you to contact for help."
Just remember: Don't leave. If you're in line when polls close, you get to vote. "Don't ever walk away not having cast your ballot," Bishop says.
Thanks to Quinn Bradlee and Michelle Bishop for their expert advice.
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