Disabled people experience systemic inaccessibility throughout the voting process.
Yet, undeterred by the immense challenges, disabled voters brave barriers at the ballot box in order to exercise their right to vote.
In early October, mail ballots were delivered to millions of registered voters in California. A result of the COVID-19 pandemic, this gave voters the convenience to vote from home.
For many disabled people, this was an accessible and convenient way to vote.
However, for Patricia Kuresa-Boone, a 51-year old disabled Fountain Valley resident, voting in person has always been her preferred way of voting. Boone is a student at Cal State Fullerton working on her Masters degree in Human Resources as well as a member of Abled Advocators, a student-led Disability advocacy group.
“Because of my epilepsy, some of my triggers are stress and anxiety so I literally have to plan a month ahead to avoid the stressors of who I’m voting for, where I’m voting, how I’m getting there, what time my polling place opens and all that voting entails for me.”
Tackling the Polls
According to the CDC “26% of people in the United States have a disability”, one in every six voters.
A report this year by Rutgers concluded,“If people with disabilities voted at the same rate as people without disabilities who have the same demographic characteristic, there would be about 1.75 million more voters.”
Yet, disabled voters also face systemic barriers to access.
The disabled voter has long been suppressed from voting by physical barriers, unreliable or accessible transportation, lack of poll working training, lack of working accessible voting machines and stigma with developmental and psychiatric disabilities.
“The Registrar of Voters is obligated to ensure that all voters have access to voting independently or with assistance,” said Orange County’s new Registrar of Voters Bob Page in email responses to questions.
“And, we seek regular feedback and guidance from community partners on our Voting Accessibility Advisory Committee in order to identify opportunities to improve the accessibility of voting in Orange County.” Page added.
Listed on the website to the Orange County Registrars of Voters, all Orange County voting centers feature: Accessible voting machines, ASL interpreter via video, Curbside voting, Allowing up to two people to assist voters who are unable to mark their ballot.
Curbside voting was offered at 181 voting centers in Orange County, with drive thru ballot drop off affected in 31 sites on Election Day due to Inclement weather.
In The 2022 General Election, 74 of the 158,000 voters who voted in person at an Orange County Vote Center requested curbside voting assistance, according to Page.
County officials also state that ”All of our Customer Service Representatives (CSRs) who assist voters in our Vote Centers receive eight hours of in-person, hands-on training.”
New employees working their first election, also receive 12 hours of online training” explained Page,
“In training, CSRs are taught how to operate the Touch Writers and how to provide assistance to anyone who requests to use them. The CSRs are also taught how to interact with voters with different abilities and needs,” Page added.
What Happens on The Ground?
For Election Day, Boone had planned to walk to her voting center, a 15 minute walk.
But on Tuesday morning when she woke up at 6 a.m. to get ready, she quickly realized it was raining, which would not allow her to walk.
So, she took a Lyft.
Her $14, Lyft left her right outside Coastal Community Fellowship, a place of worship and what she thought was her voting center.
But to her surprise there were not any “Vote this way” signs or balloons or workers to greet her, as she expected.
“This has been my voting place for six years. It’s almost 8 a.m. and there is no one here,” she said.
She walked around the building looking for an open door, without an umbrella as she did not expect to have to walk in the rain.
A sign on the entrance door read “Out of Office please call in case of emergency.”
Boone called the number, and a woman answered.
“Is this place still being used for voting?,” Boone asked.
“I know this line is for emergencies but this is my last day to vote, it feels like an emergency,” she told the person on the other end.
The person on the phone explained the site was no longer a voting center.
The closest voting site was at the Fountain Valley School District
“Oh it’s so close, we can walk in the rain” laughed Patricia.
She ordered another Lyft to avoid the 10-minute walk in heavy rains.
“I literally checked the location several times during the week to verify that I could still vote at this place,” she said.
What Kind of Assistance Do Disabled Voters Most Need?
According to a survey by Easterseals, 20% of People with Disabilities need transportation assistance to a voting location.
“It would be great to have free accessible transportation to the voting centers. I understand there is the mail-in-option and I know many disabled and elders utilize this option but for me, I love the voting experience, I always have.” says Boone.
Once Boone arrived at the voting center, she was greeted by a poll worker “I brought my ballot as a guide but would like to vote in person so I can guarantee my vote was counted.” Boone announced.
The poll worker explained the voting in person process.
“Ok, I am going to say it back to you how I understood it and you tell me if I am correct,” Boone said, visibly confused. The worker then explained it to her again and they directed her to a voting booth where she was expected to fill out another paper ballot.
Boone’s disability, epilepsy and a brain tumor create difficulty with language and symbolic processing as well as her motor skill functions so she struggles to hold a pencil and write neatly as is required on a ballot.
“Oh wow, we are really going old school, there’s no machines.” she whispers, as she walks by three empty, accessible voting machines.
She struggled for 17 minutes trying her best to fill in the tiny rectangles.
Boone then placed her ballot through a scan machine that displayed the flag when processed and then she got her I Voted sticker.
“Many times people will say oh there’s the mail-in option and I’m like yeah but I don’t want to do that. I enjoy the process even if it’s more difficult for me, I am still capable and I don’t want to miss out on the voting experience.” said Patricia as she waited for her Lyft.
Disabled Voters Often Need a Ride
Sylvia Delgado, a 46-year old resident of Costa Mesa with Cerebral Palsy, a neurological disorder that affects coordination problems, uses a power wheelchair as a mobility aid.
Because of the bus strikes in Orange County and the heavy rains predicted for Tuesday Sylvia’s long plans to drop off her ballot on election day had to be changed to Monday.
She missed her first bus prompting her to wait for the next bus another 8 minutes. A 13 minute bus ride dropped her off 8 minutes away from Costa Mesa City Hall, her voting center.
“I have Access (Access is the service name of the ADA Complementary Paratransit service for functionally disabled individuals) but If I make a same day reservation I’d have to pay for that,” she said.
“It would be nice if they had a number you could call and tell them “I need a ride to my polling center and they pick you up and drop you back off, that would be helpful.”
Once at the voting center, she was able to follow a clear wide path that eased her into dropping off her ballot.
“I make the decision to vote because Political candidates and leaders need to hear the disabled community’s voice, they need to hear me as a person,” Delgado said.
Disabled People Register To Vote
A nationwide survey conducted by AARP and Easterseals released on September 12, 2022 shows that 9 in 10 Americans with Disabilities are registered to vote. And 89% of adult Americans who are disabled said they “definitely” or “probably” would vote in the Midterm election.
A recent survey by Rutgers found nearly 62% of people with disabilities voted in 2020, up from 56% in 2016.
Yet, there are still many barriers for disabled people to be civically engaged.
Nonprofits are in many cases filling the void.
“Easterseal does a good job at working towards equity, inclusion and diversity and they have supported all efforts to get the disability vote out,” says Howard McBroom, a disability advocate and staff member of Easterseals Southern California. McBroom has autism and utilizes a wheelchair.
In 2020, Easterseals launched a voter awareness campaign called “We Are the 25%” highlighting that 25 percent of the US population or one-in-four voters have a disability.
Still, many disabled voters often feel neglected or misunderstood by candidates.
Oftentimes, when politicians talk about disability issues the message is geared towards caregivers, parents, teachers rather than directly speaking to disabled people.
“What we need is political leaders that are willing to reach out to the disabled community directly and understand the concerns of the disabled community,” said McBroom.
“This is not a voting group that they should be overlooking, they should be making every effort to cultivate this vote, to encourage it and they should be meeting with the disability community to talk about increasing accessibility at voting centers.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that there was curbside voting at 180 voting centers across OC and that 32 were closed due to inclement weather. We regret the error.
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