Nikki Rojas and Maria Elena Perez dig into the laws preventing Americans with mental and physical disabilities from getting to the polls.
[PATRICK]: I'm definitely going to vote in November. It's going to be stressful if I go in and deal with the same issues, but it's still doable for myself. I can't speak for other people who have different hearing losses than I do... different levels of deafness than I do. I will be going in and trying to vote as best as I can.
[PULL QUOTE INTRO]
[NIKKI]: Despite facing difficulties and frustrations while voting in New York’s primaries this summer, freelance journalist Patrick de Hahn, who is deaf, is determined to vote in November’s general election. His experience at the polls is just one example of the barriers faced by voters with disabilities. In this episode, we talk about the hurdles Americans with disabilities must overcome to exercise their voting rights.
[NIKKI]: I’m Nikki Rojas.
[MARIA]: And I’m Maria Elena Perez. We’re the hosts of America the Voiceless.
[NIKKI]: We believe all Americans have a voice, but too many Americans face roadblocks when it comes to casting their vote. America the Voiceless looks into the barriers many Americans have to overcome to make sure their voices are heard during the voting process.
[NARRATION & INTERVIEW]
[MARIA]: More than 14 million voters with disabilities reported voting in the 2018 midterm elections and there’s an estimated 38 million eligible voters with disabilities. It remains to be seen how many of those same voters will exercise their voting rights in the upcoming election, but we do know that they will not only face the “typical” roadblocks to the ballot box but a global pandemic that has already killed more than 217,000 Americans.
[NIKKI]: During the last presidential election, an estimated 60% of polling locations were not compliant with the American Disabilities Act. Voters with disabilities face an insurmountable number of issues at the polls ––including inaccessibility, lack of knowledgeable poll workers or ADA-compliant polling machines –– and those issues are only compounded by the current coronavirus pandemic.
[MARIA]: You know, while working on this episode, it really made me think about my mom and her voting experience. My mom has Multiple Sclerosis and every time my dad or I would take her to vote at our local polling station, we would always have to help her up from her wheelchair, make her stand and have her fill out her ballot instead of filling out the ballot from her wheelchair. And in the moment, I’m not really thinking about how easy it would be to have an ADA accessible voting booth because someone is always there to help my mom. But what about the voters who do come to the polls by themselves and need the extra help?
[NIKKI]: The voting experiences of Maria’s mom is not only frustrating, but preventable. In July 1990, then-President George H.W. Bush signed the American Disabilities Act, which affirmed the inalienable rights of Americans with disabilities. The act gives Americans with disabilities legal recourse against employers who discriminate against them and set federal standards for access to public buildings and public accommodations. Under the ADA, public places such as polling stations must be fully accessible to voters with disabilities.
[MARIA]: Unfortunately, thirty years after the passage of the ADA, voters with disabilities still face barriers during the election season. For this episode we spoke to Jack Rosen, the voter engagement specialist at the National Disability Rights Network, to delve into these barriers and discuss what can be done so they can no longer suppress the vote of Americans with disabilities.
[NIKKI]: Jack explained that while the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t exactly changed the barriers faced by voters with disabilities, it certainly has made them worse.
[JACK]: The barriers to people with disabilities exercising their right to vote in some ways haven't necessarily changed, uh, because of Corona, but it has made a lot of existing problems worse. Um, you know, perhaps one of the biggest barriers is that polling places, despite, uh, what the law says are often not ADA compliant. Uh, we were part of a study that found that some, I believe 60% of polling places do not meet full ADA accessibility requirements. And that alone is a huge problem.
[MARIA]: In 2016, disability rights activist Victor Pineda shared with Vox how bad accessibility at the polls really can truly be.
[00:26-01:05]: Victor was able to vote in 2008, but not without great difficulty. Because he uses a wheelchair, Victor had to wait for 30 minutes outside a fraternity while poll workers scrambled to find an accessible voting booth. The solution that poll workers ultimately came up with was to have Victor forgo his privacy rights and vote from the sidewalk. Yes, I voted, but it did not make me feel like I was voting privately, nor with dignity, when I was trying to express myself like everybody else. Each one of us wants to feel like we belong. And having to have this sort of cumbersome process — it just makes you feel like you’re an afterthought.
[NIKKI]: For this episode, we also spoke to Patrick de Hahn, a deaf freelance journalist, who struggled while voting in New York’s primaries this year. Patrick said the experience was both stressful and anxiety-inducing.
[PATRICK]: I'm a deaf person. I was born profoundly deaf. I currently wear a cochlear implant in one ear, so, um, I can hear and speak, but, um, I'm not a representative for every deaf person in a community, in a deaf community. Um, so I went to both for the New York state primary and Brooklyn recently. And it was, you know, of course, uh, stressful and anxiety, a lot of stress, you know, having to go out and about and a pandemic besides that you go to the polling station and, and everyone to wearing masks face masks. So it's difficult to, to deaf person going in and not being able to lip read and have facial cues with the, a face max covering their mouth.
[MARIA]: Patrick explained how difficult it was to have to constantly repeat himself and ask poll workers to repeat themselves so he could submit his ballot. And while he understands why everyone should wear masks during the pandemic, it doesn’t mean they don’t make it more difficult to understand people.
[PATRICK]: I had some questions, but the face masks makes you kind of like take a step back and it's kind of a barrier. And it makes you kind of want to give up. But of course, we know that it's a very important time and we have to vote and exercise our right as an American to vote, so it's...I'm persistent.
[PATRICK]: For deaf and hard of hearing people, I feel it may be difficult for them in terms of voting in a regular election aside of a pandemic might be clarity in terms of voting in terms of going and understanding what the process is. This goes for the pandemic as well.
[NIKKI]: While it’s important to make sure that polling locations are ADA compliant and that poll workers have the skills to help voters with disabilities, Jack said it was equally important that candidates run campaigns that are accessible. The NDRN even came up with a list so candidates can make sure their campaigns are more inclusive for voters with disabilities.
[MARIA]: Some of those suggestions were as easy as putting captions on candidate’s campaign videos, while other recommendations involved making conscious decisions about accessibility like holding campaign events at accessible venues.
[JACK]: To paraphrase Imani Bararin, who's a great disability activist. She said, you know, when you don't make your campaigns accessible, you're asking people with disabilities to get, you know, your message as a candidate translated to them.
[JACK]: As for why it's important for candidates to do this beyond, you know, their own benefit. It's important because people with disabilities represent some one in four, um, Americans. People with disabilities and their families are one of the largest, uh, voting demographics in this country. But so often, you know, candidates don't feel that they need to take the steps necessary to make sure their campaign is actually accessible to this large group of people. And it ends up, you know, discouraging participation for many folks with disabilities when they can't find out where the candidates stand, or they can't, you know, attend their events or get to meet these candidates because that's what they're doing, isn't accessible.
[NIKKI]: As the pandemic continued through the summer into the fall, the political world turned its attention to mail-in voting. Democrats, including many we spoke to, hailed mail-in voting as the ultimate solution to our voting problems. Mail-in voting would allow voters to exercise their voting rights without facing crowded polling stations in the middle of a deadly pandemic.
[MARIA]: Republicans took the renewed interest in mail-in voting and responded with vigorous attacks and unfounded claims of voter fraud. President Donald Trump’s administration went as far as to slow down and impede the US Postal Service from collecting and delivering mail in a timely manner.
[00:00-00:55]: We’re going to start with President Trump’s war on mail-in voting. It is continuing to escalate and the president is threatening to withhold funding to the postal service that could help them deal with what is expected to be an influx of mail-in ballots because of the coronavirus pandemic. He’s continued to claim that mail-in voting leads to widespread fraud and rigged elections, without presenting any evidence. Security analysts argue that election-related crimes definitely exist, but voting fraud is rare in the United States. Several states are opting for mail-in voting this fall as the coronavirus pandemic grips much of the country. Democrats have been pushing for the postal service to receive more funding in the latest relief package, so workers can handle the influx of mail-in ballots. However, President Trump says that he opposes that move, sparking major outrage among voting rights advocates.
[NIKKI]: Both Jack and Patrick acknowledged that mail-in voting could even be a good solution for certain voters with disabilities. When we spoke to Patrick in July, when things in New York were slowly calming down, he said that he felt mail-in voting was a good alternative for people who are deaf or hard of hearing or elderly people with hearing impairments.
[MARIA]: But Jack noted that mail-in ballots are not helpful to voters who are blind. In fact, blind voters in North Carolina and Texas sued their respective states because they believe mail-in ballots are discriminatory. In North Carolina, several blind voters and disability groups sued the state’s board of elections to demand an accessible way to vote in November. Similar lawsuits have been successful in a number of states, including Pennsylvania, Maine, New Hampshire, New York and Virginia. Those states have all added accessible absentee ballots for voters with disabilities.
[NIKKI]: Sadly, blind voters are not the only voters with disabilities who can’t complete mail-in ballots. In September, The New York Times shared the story of Sheryl Grossman and other voters with disabilities who are facing tremendous obstacles when it comes to voting. Sheryl, who has Bloom syndrome (a genetic disorder that affects her immune system and causes cognitive disabilities), needed the help of two election officials to fill out her Maryland primary ballot outside of her home during the primaries due to the pandemic. She told the Times that without the help of her local election board, she wouldn’t be able to vote.
[MARIA]: As voters with disabilities navigate their options come Election Day, we asked Jack and Patrick what exactly can be done to make voting easier for Americans with disabilities.
[JACK]: To be honest, it would start with, you know, really enforcing the ABA to make sure that polling places themselves are accessible because, you know, when you go up to a polling place and let's say it doesn't have a wheelchair ramp, you know, that kind of does send the message that you're not welcome here. And that's a huge problem. So I'd say the first thing we can do is make sure polling places are accessible. And I want to add that when doing so, we need to avoid misuses of the ADA, which we've seen. Uh, we, I believe we issued a report called blocking the ballot box that, you know, they, it appears that in some instances, people have closed polling places citing ADA compliance when they really want to close polling places to suppress turnout. Um, so making sure that polling places are actually accessible is probably the number one thing we could do to improve the voting process for people with disabilities.
[MARIA]: Patrick, meanwhile, called for compassion towards voters who are deaf or hard of hearing.
[PATRICK]: I would say they need to just have patience and understanding when speaking with a deaf and hard of hearing person, we are facing a pandemic. Everyone is, but it's a whole other barrier in terms of communication. When we are faced with everybody wearing masks, covering their mouth. When we, uh, we w usually depending on how many lip reading and facial cues and facial expression, um, to supplement to our understand and have conversations. So when we're out and about, we're seeing everyone in masks, it's a whole extra barrier So patience and understanding and communicating them with us when we're out and about would be huge for us, as to deaf community. Um, and at times for other additional solutions for the polling stations and election, for the deaf and hard of hearing community, I would also say it would be wonderful if it would be a huge bonus. If everyone had face masks where they have clear transparent windows, so we can see their mouths when we're speaking with them.
[NIKKI]: The lack of clear, transparent masks is such an important issue for Patrick that he and his brother, who is also deaf, started accessiblemasks.org, an online resource that curates different clear masks and provides information about the importance of clear masks for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.
[MARIA]: Apart from clear masks, Patrick also said that there should be clear signs or a website that explains what the voting process will be like. He said this could help voters who are deaf or hard of hearing prepare for the voting process.
[NIKKI]: There are plenty of things the government can do to help voters with disabilities during the voting process, but Jack noted that regular voters can also promote change by speaking up when they notice that polling locations aren’t accessible or that they don’t have accessible electronic voting machines.
[JACK]: I think people should be mindful of things like when they get to the polling place, do you see a place that someone who uses a wheelchair could enter? And if not, you should say something, you know, it always falls to people with disabilities to kind of raise, uh, you know, to raise these issues. But, you know, it would help if other people would say something and say, no, that's not right. This polling place, it's supposed to have a ramp or a level entrance. They're supposed to be accessible, parking spaces available. Similarly, if you see that your polling place doesn't have any accessible electronic voting machines, and they're insisting that the only thing available is paper, you should say, you know, this is an issue, this isn't right, this is preventing other people from casting their ballots.
[MARIA]: Given all the difficulties he experienced during the primary elections, we asked Patrick how he felt about the upcoming general election in less than two weeks.
[NIKKI]: Patrick, given what you've experienced during the primaries, are you looking forward to voting in November?
[PATRICK]: Well, I mean, um, I'm definitely going to vote in November. It's going to be stressful if I go in and deal with the same issues, but it's still doable for myself. I can't speak for other people who have different in losses than I do different levels of deafness than I do. I will be going in and trying to vote as best as I can. Um, I will try to potentially maybe bow, um, mailing boat or absentee. So I don't have to go out and about in a pandemic, but if I do, I will be going to the police station and do the best tech pack.
[MARIA]: Thank you for joining us for this episode of America the Voiceless. Join us next week for our second-to-last episode. We’ll be discussing the roadblocks faced by many voters who are unable to get to their polling locations and what different organizations are doing to help.
[MARIA]: A special thank you to our podcast producer Willis Polk, audio engineer Phil Williams and the rest of The North Star staff.
[NIKKI]: This podcast is brought to you by The North Star, an independent media site fully supported by our members on TheNorthStar.com. If you’re not already a member, we’d love for you to subscribe so you can support our work. You can catch a fresh episode of America the Voiceless every Thursday on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts.