Able News Column May 2024 – Creating Systemic Change for Voters with Disabilities

November may seem like a long way off, but election season is in full swing. We, at DRA, are working tirelessly to ensure that people with disabilities have equal opportunities to cast their ballots. In fact, for almost 15 years, DRA has been doing voting advocacy across the country, working to enforce disability rights laws through impact litigation to make various aspects of the voting experience more accessible. But what exactly are the different kinds of barriers to voting that people with disabilities face? And how does DRA break them down?

As many of you know all too well, people with disabilities face just about every imaginable barrier to casting their votes on election days: physically inaccessible polling stations, broken accessible voting machines, poll workers who aren’t trained to use accessible voting equipment, inaccessible absentee voting systems, and, unfortunately, the list goes on and on.        

While the barriers are rampant, we’re beginning to turn the tide. DRA’s voting work began in New York City in 2010, in response to widespread physical barriers throughout the City’s poll sites that kept many people with mobility disabilities from being able to get inside a polling place to cast their ballot. In July of 2010, DRA filed a case against the New York City Board of Elections to address these barriers, and in October of 2012, the court ordered the Board of Elections to ensure that physical access barriers did not get in the way of people being able to vote throughout the City. The City was required to adopt a plan designating one poll-site worker at every poll site who was trained in poll-site accessibility by CIDNY. It also required the Board of Elections to work with a voting access specialist to develop a plan to transition its polling sites to accessible facilities. 

Then, in July of 2013, DRA turned our attention to the County of Alameda in California, where we filed a lawsuit challenging discrimination that blind voters faced during the November 2012 General Election. In that election, problems with the audio and tactile features of voting machines kept many blind voters from being able to vote privately. In May of 2015, DRA secured a settlement to ensure that these technical issues were resolved so that voters who are blind could cast a ballot privately and independently.  

In 2020, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, access to absentee voting became (and remains) more critical than ever for the disability community. DRA filed a case in North Carolina in 2020 seeking the option for people with vision disabilities to have an electronic means for requesting, receiving, marking, and returning absentee ballots. The court ordered this relief in time for the November 2020 election and the next year ordered that this method of voting be made available on a permanent basis going forward.

DRA and its partners filed a similar case in New York and secured a settlement agreement in April 2022 requiring the state to implement an accessible, electronic method by which voters with a print disability across New York State may request, receive, and mark an accessible absentee ballot electronically.

In December 2020, we continued our work to improve access to absentee voting when we filed a lawsuit against the Indiana Election Commission and the Indiana Secretary of State. At the time, Indiana had a rule that absentee voters who could not independently mark their own ballots could vote absentee by mail only by appointment with a “traveling board” of elections officials. This archaic system was not only rooted in problematic stereotypes about people with disabilities, but it did not allow independent voting and resulted in at least one person – one of our clients – being deprived of the chance to vote altogether. In February of 2023, DRA reached a settlement in which the state agreed to implement accessible electronic voting procedures that would allow voters to request, receive, mark, and cast their absentee ballots privately and independently. 

Fast forward to March of this year: DRA, along with a coalition of disability organizations and California voters with disabilities, filed a lawsuit aiming to ensure that the state’s vote-by-mail program is fully accessible for Californians with print disabilities in time for the November elections. California’s vote-by-mail program still relies on a paper-based ballot return mechanism that excludes and discriminates against people with print disabilities. This case has just begun but we are hopeful that the court will act swiftly.

No matter what barriers pop up for voters with disabilities, DRA is committed to making sure that our clients and the millions of the rest of us with disabilities can cast our votes this November and in elections beyond. With every voting access victory in every state, DRA, together with our clients and partner organizations, sets an important legal precedent and moves us closer to full participation in society. 

Read the entire May 2024 Able News Issue