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US election 2020: What does healthy voting mean for people with disabilities?

“Not everyone realizes how big this group is,” voter engagement specialist Jack Rosen told Healthline Media, referring to the 38 million people in the US with a disability who are eligible to vote in this imminent election. Healthline invited Rosen to discuss the impact of the pandemic, accessible voting, and what constitutes healthy voting for people with disabilities.

According to the most recent data from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, more than one-fourth of the total United States electorate either has a disability or shares a household with a person with a disability.

What is more, over 38 million people with disabilities will be eligible to vote in the upcoming elections.

In this context, Healthline Media invited guest speaker Jack Rosen to talk to its employees about healthy voting and what it means for people with disabilities in the United States.

What are some of the electoral issues that affect people with disabilities in the U.S.? What role has the pandemic played in realigning their priorities? And what can we do to make sure that voters with disabilities actively engage with, and are fairly treated within, the voting process?

These are some of the questions that Jack Rosen, voter engagement specialist with the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN), answered for Healthline during a live online talk.

If you would like to check your registration status or register to vote, we have added some useful links at the bottom of this article.

Rosen’s work increases the participation of voters with disabilities in the democratic process through non-partisan messaging.

In order to increase voter engagement on a national level, he collaborates with various civil and disability rights organizations, developing resources for these organizations. He also encourages politicians and the media to cover and discuss more of the political issues that impact people with disabilities.

“Not everyone realizes how big this group is,” said Rosen, referring to the 38 million people projected by the Rutgers study, “and part of my job is to make sure they do and start reaching out to them.”

When asked what healthy voting means for voters with disabilities, Rosen mentioned two things.

Firstly, we need to regard voting as something that can benefit a person’s health. Voting is an important way for people to feel part of their community, which is especially crucial for people with disabilities during the current pandemic.

“Many have been, unfortunately, really isolated during this pandemic, whether it’s due to their own vulnerability to COVID-19, the fact that they live in a group home or congregate setting that has restricted access to visitors, or an inability to see family and support staff as they normally would.”

But also, crucially, some of the issues at stake during this election directly affect the health of the electorate.

“There are issues on the ballot that quite literally impact the health of people with disabilities, from how this country handles things like access to healthcare, to the future of social security and Veterans Administration benefits, to countless other programs that directly impact the health of people with disabilities.”

– Jack Rosen

For instance, what happens with the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is one of the most significant issues at the forefront of voters’ minds this year, Rosen added.

“So, healthy voting is both feeling a part of the community,” Rosen said, “and having the chance to have a say in the policies that will have a direct impact on the health of individuals with disabilities.”

While the pandemic has led to many people with disabilities feeling isolated, it has also led to some positive consequences for this group. For example, by removing previously existing barriers that stopped many people in the U.S. from voting, Rosen explained.

For example, mail-in voting and electronic voting became more widespread. “In some states,” Rosen said, “they’ve managed to roll back barriers, such as requiring a notary to notarize your absentee ballot request or having multiple witnesses.”

“That said,” Rosen continued, “I should add the caveat that while the expansion of vote by mail has been great, it’s not a cure-all.”

“A number of our [protection and advocacy representatives] have had to fight their state governments to ensure that mail-in ballots will be accessible to those who are blind or those who have certain print disabilities that make it hard for them to fill out a paper ballot.”

“[I]n some areas, there were skill signature requirements that they were concerned about. For instance, you have certain disabilities that mean your signature may not always consistently match — that is, a voter with Parkinson’s, for instance.”

‘Fight for accessible voting is far from over’

However, making voting accessible is a relatively new development, and while progress has been made, it’s important to remember how much more there is to do.

Rosen placed these advancements in a historical context, mentioning the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as the start of this journey. The 1965 VRA outlawed literacy tests as a prerequisite to voting, among other things.

It also allowed voters who were blind or had another disability to receive assistance from a person of their choice.

One of the most significant expansions to VRA came in 2002 with the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which requires that each polling place provides at least one accessible voting system for people with disabilities. This guarantees people with disabilities the same private and independent conditions that other voters receive in federal elections.

However, Rosen cautioned, the “fight for accessible voting is far from over.”

“Unfortunately, [out of] some 60% of polling places surveyed [by NDRN], we found that some 16% were not fully [Americans with Disabilities Act]-compliant in terms of accessibility. So, we’re getting there, but there’s still a lot of barriers to overcome, and one of them is making sure that every single polling place is fully accessible.”

“[W]hen we talk about the historic fight for access to the vote, it isn’t one that’s at the forefront of people’s mind, but it is a very real one that was born out of the 60s and really still does go on to this day,” Rosen added.

Poll worker shortage, polling station closure cause concern

When quizzed further about how the pandemic will affect the voting process for people with disabilities, Rosen mentioned a couple of concerns.

Firstly, for those choosing to vote in person, the pandemic may have led to a shortage of poll workers. The closure of some accessible polling stations is also a cause for concern — some of these locations include nursing facilities or schools that did not want to risk hosting large crowds of people.

“We knew these worked as accessible polling places, and, as states scramble to find replacement polling places, we need to ensure that those ones are accessible,” Rosen said.

He added, “We need poll workers who are trained and are familiar with how to set up and help voters through the use of an accessible voting machine. We’re a little concerned about that.”

Imposed lock-downs and ‘pre-existing conditions’

“One other thing that concerns us is folks in congregate settings that are locked down. I’ve heard some reports of folks that aren’t allowed to leave their facility due to the pandemic, and they’ve been told ‘if you leave to go vote, you may not be allowed back in,’ […] or that they’re not getting enough support, conversely, to request their mail-in ballot.”

Finally, Rosen made an important point regarding the sense of urgency that permeates this election in light of the pandemic’s effect on people with disabilities in America.

“[I]n the news, we keep hearing the term ‘pre-existing condition’ thrown around when they talk about COVID deaths, sometimes in a way to say, you know, all these people would have died anyway. And I want to push back on that idea because […] those are people with disabilities.”

– Jack Rosen

“[P]people with disabilities know what they hear when they hear pre-existing conditions, they know ‘oh that refers to my condition.’ So I do think this pandemic does have people particularly fired up.”

Some do’s and don’ts for poll station volunteers

Rosen also took questions from the audience. One attendee asked if he had any advice or “do’s and don’ts” for people who volunteered to be a poll worker this year if they do not receive appropriate training to assist voters with disabilities.

Rosen highlighted that the best thing a person can do is insist on getting trained in the first place and ask during the training session questions about using an accessible voting machine and how to best assist those who are having trouble physically accessing the polling place.

Additionally, “if you, on election day, see a polling place that is not physically accessible for any reason, you should report it to the election protection hotline — that’s 866 OUR VOTE. You can also call your state’s Protection and Advocacy agency to let them know, and you should.”

In term’s of the “don’ts,” Rosen mentioned some “etiquette” rules around accessible voting:

  • “Don’t, of course, assume that someone with an intellectual disability can’t vote.”
  • “Don’t question someone’s need to use an accessible voting machine — everyone has the right to use one upon request.”
  • “A big one, which unfortunately we hear too often, if there is an issue with the accessible machine, as much as possible, you should not offer to help someone fill out their ballot.”

“[I]f they request some help from the poll worker,” Rosen continued, “that’s absolutely fine, but that should not in any circumstance, be a solution to the accessible equipment not being there.”

“The solution is that the accessible equipment is there, it’s turned on, and it’s working, because voters who are blind, for instance, have the right to vote, privately, the same as anyone else.”

To check your voter registration status, click here to visit the website of VoteAmerica, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to increasing voter turnout. They can also help you register to vote, vote by mail, request an absentee ballot, or find your polling place.

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