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Research Navigator: Counting and Being Counted! Voters with Vision Loss in the 2016 Elections

Published September 23, 2016

Image reads: Vote

As we approach the end of a very long campaign season and look towards Election Day in November, this edition of the Navigator will investigate what is known about voter registration and the voting habits of people with vision loss. We'll look into:

About This Series

Welcome to the eighth edition of AFB's Research Navigator. This is a quarterly series - accompanying AFB's DirectConnect newsletter - from the AFB Public Policy Center. The purpose of this series is to keep you informed of user-friendly facts and figures and the latest research pertaining to people with vision loss. The series will also include the necessary background information so you may use the information most accurately. Have an idea for a Research Navigator topic? Want to know more about a particular statistic or line of research? Send your thoughts to AFB's Senior Policy Researcher, Rebecca Sheffield. Readers are also encouraged to check out AFB's Statistical Snapshots. This webpage is regularly updated with a wide variety of information and tools that address commonly asked questions about people with vision loss.

A Global and Historical Introduction to the Topic

According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (last updated 2010), all but four countries in the world have some sort of system for electing government representatives at the national level. Since the enactment of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities - which emphasizes full and equal participation of people with disabilities in elections - people who are blind or visually impaired around the world have become increasingly involved and engaged participants in civil society.

The right to vote in the United States has been around as long as Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution and is mentioned in four separate Constitutional amendments (15th, 19th, 24th, and 26th). While there is not a particular Constitutional amendment about voting rights for people with disabilities, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 allowed for people with disabilities to receive assistance "by a person of the voter's choice," provided that the person with a disability could not choose his/her boss or union agent as a voting assistant. In 1984, the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act was enacted, mandating that older people and people with disabilities have access to polling places while also prompting the development of accessible voter registration sites. The 1993 National Voter Registration Act required state agencies for people with disabilities to provide voter registration services for people with disabilities, and in 1991, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed, Title II of which requires polling and voter registration places to be accessible and emphasizes the right of all people full to and equal voting opportunities. Furthermore, since 2002, the Help America Vote Act has set minimum standards for the accessibility of federal voting systems to people with visual impairments and other disabilities. For more information, the Department of Justice provides a thorough discussion of laws related to voting rights for persons with disabilities.

The impact of disability voting laws continues to evolve through law suits and court decisions, such as the 2016 law suit by the U.S. Department of Justice against Harris County, Texas, alleging structural barriers preventing people who use wheel chairs from accessing polling sites. Also in 2016, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) and Disability Rights Ohio won a lawsuit against the Secretary of State of Ohio, finding that Ohio's practice of only providing absentee ballots in print violated the ADA's guarantee of equal voting opportunity. NFB, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Disability Rights Advocates brought suit earlier this year against the New York State Board of Elections and Department of Motor Vehicles alleging inaccessibility of online voter registration.

Numbers: How many voters are we talking about?

Given that the United States has only relatively recently focused on equal voting rights for people with disabilities, and seeing that the courts continue to work out the enforcement and interpretation of these protections, what do we know about the rates at which people with vision loss are actually registering and turning out to vote?

Schur & Krus (2016) from Rutgers University recently released a report projecting the number of eligible voters with disabilities. They based their data on Census Bureau population projections as well as disability data from the American Community Survey. Schur and Krus' report has received considerable media attention including stories from USA Today and New York's Times Union. Some key findings include:

Image reads: A projected 6.3 million eligible voters in 2016 will have visual impairments. -Rutgers University; Schur, Adya and Kruse 2013
  • The authors estimate that there will be 35.4 million eligible voters with disabilities in November, 2016 - that's nearly one in six eligible voters.
  • This estimated total number of voters with disabilities is an increase of 10.8% over 2008, while the population of eligible voters without disabilities has only increased 8.5%
  • More than 25% of the electorate in November will either have a disability or have a household member with a disability.
  • A projected 6.3 million eligible voters will have visual impairments! This number was 5.9 million in 2008 and 5.7 million in 2012.

Although it seems natural to assume that these projections and increases are related to the aging population, we should not overlook that there will actually be more eligible voters with disabilities under age 65 than over age 65.

Just a few days ago (September 22), the Pew Research Center released another report about voters with disabilities (Igielnik, 2016). Instead of working with Census data, the Pew Center conducted their own survey titled the American Trends Panel. They found that 22% of Americans self-report living with a disability; however, it should be noted that this survey was conducted via the internet and the mail and thus might underrepresent people with vision loss.

Voter Interest & Voter Registration

According to both Schur, Adya, and Kruse (2013) and the Pew Research Center (Igielnik, 2016), people with disabilities report being more likely than people without disabilities to be interested in the election or involved in politics. This makes sense - policies and government officials can have a huge impact on the lives of people with disabilities! Pew Center research (Igielnik, 2016) suggested that the overlap between aging and disability contributes to the the higher rates of political interest among people with disabilities. People with disabilities are, on average, older than people without disabilities, and older people tend to follow political issues more closely than younger people. Additionally, people with disabilities are less likely to report missing voter registration deadlines or not being eligible to vote (Schur, Adya, & Kruse).

Rocking the Vote

Do voters with vision loss favor different candidates and policies than other voters? The answer is not completely clear. The Pew Research Center (Igielnik, 2016) found that the political preferences of people with disabilities are similar to those of the general public, and this similarity holds true if we consider just those people with and without disabilities who are actually registered voters. The Pew researchers found that 42% of people with disabilities lean Republican (43% of people without disabilities), and 50% of people with disabilities lean Democratic (52% of people without disabilities). As of the time of the Pew Center's survey (August-September, 2016), 40% of people with disabilities said they would vote for Donald Trump (38% of people without disabilities), and 47% of people with disabilities said they would vote for Hillary Clinton (45% of people without disabilities). People with disabilities were less likely to report a preference for one of the third-party candidates. It is important to note that the Pew Center did not report margins of error for these data. Also, these data have not been reported specifically for people with vision loss, nor have researchers looked into potential state and regional variations (where smaller differences in voter trends can have larger impacts).

Barriers to Registration

Research from the Pew Center suggests that there is little difference in voter registration rates between people with and without disabilities (80% of people with disabilities report being registered vs. 84% of people without disabilities). Surprisingly, Schur, Adya, and Kruse (2013) found that almost a quarter of people with disabilities who were not registered to vote cited their disability as the reason for not being registered! While there are certain rare and controversial legal circumstances where state laws allow a judge to determine that a person with a mental/developmental disability is unable to vote - see the Bazelon Center's document State Laws Affecting the Voting Rights of People with Mental Disabilities (link to PDF) - a disability in itself should not be a legal impediment to voting.

What about voter turnout?

Turnout this year will depend on many factors including get-out-the-vote efforts as well as barriers and accessibility concerns. In their most recent report, Schur & Krus reported that voter turnout in 2012 was 5.7% lower for people with disabilities than for people without disabilities. Looking deeper, these researchers analyzed results from their own survey as well as the Census Bureau's November 2012 voter supplement (part of the Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Population Survey fielded during November following each national election). They found:

Image reads: In 2012, if people with vision loss had voted at the same rate as people without visual impairments, turnout would have increased by over 200,000 -Rutgers University, Schur, Adya and Kruse 2013
  • For people with vision difficulty (Census Bureau's definition - "blind or serious trouble seeing even when wearing glasses or contacts"), 57% of eligible voters voted in 2008, 40% in 2010, and 57% in 2012. For voters without disabilities, the rates were 65% in 2008, 46% in 2010, and 63% in 2012. Thus, if people with vision loss had voted at the same rate as people without visual impairments in 2012, they would have increased voter turnout by over 200,000 people! That's a lot of people when you consider that the Presidential vote in Florida was decided by fewer than 75,000 votes!
  • Employment levels the playing field. People who are employed are equally likely to vote, whether or not they have a disability.
  • Voter registration for people with disabilities is somewhat lower than for people without disabilities - and if you aren't registered, you can't vote! (However, this only explains part of the lower turnout for voters with disabilities).
  • More than one in four voters with disabilities chose to vote absentee or by mail in 2012 (the rate for people without disabilities is closer to one in six). Looking specifically at voters with visual impairment, 27% voted by mail, and 15% voted early in 2012.
Image reads: Employment levels the playing field. People who are employed are equally likely to vote, whether or not they have a disability. -Rutgers University; Schur, Adya and Kruse 2013

Although it would be very helpful to know the variations in voter turnout by state for people with vision loss, the fact that the voter turnout data is based on a single monthly issuance of the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey means that the sample size is much too small to make reliable estimates about state voting rates for a small sub-population. However, estimates are a bit stronger when we look at the entire population of people with disabilities. Schur, Adya, & Kruse (2013) found:

  • Relative to the turnout rate for voters without disabilities, Delaware had the strongest turnout rate for people with disabilities: 71% for people with disabilities versus 67% for people without. Alaska, Florida, Nebraska, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming also saw higher voter turnout for people with disabilities than for people without disabilities.
  • The lowest turnout rate for voters with disabilities versus voters without was in Maine (where the voting rate was 15% lower for people with disabilities than people without). Connecticut, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. all had double-digit gaps in the difference in turnout percentages for people with and without disabilities.
  • In sheer percentage turnout for people with disabilities, Delaware lead the way with 71% turnout, and West Virginia was furthest behind with only 43% turnout.

Barriers to Voting

Schur, Adya, & Kruse (2013) found that people with disabilities were 35% more likely than people without to report that illness or disability (their own or a family member's) kept them from voting. Transportation was another barrier, with people with disabilities 3% more likely to report being kept from the polls by transportation problems. However, people with disabilities were 17% less likely to report being too busy, 7% less likely to be out of town or away from home and unable to vote, and 2% less likely to report forgetting to vote.

According to Schur, Adya, & Kruse (2013), at the polling place, difficulty reading or seeing the ballot was the most reported concern by with disabilities - regardless of the type of disability. Among people with visual impairments, 22% said that they had difficulty reading or seeing the ballot. Additionally, 15% had difficulty understanding how to vote or use the voting equipment, and 11% had difficulty finding or getting to the polling place. Also significant, 3% of people with visual impairments had difficulty getting inside their polling place, and 3% had difficulty writing on the ballot. In all, 44% of people with vision loss reported some difficulty in the polling place; nevertheless, 72% found voting to be "very easy" (by comparison, 86% of voters without disabilities reported that voting was very easy.)

In 2012, 44 percent of people with vision loss reported some difficulty in the polling place. -Rutgers University; Schur, Adya and Kruse 2013

In the voting booth, 30% of people with disabilities needed assistance, most often from an election official (42%) or family member (42%). Seven percent of people with disabilities used assistive devices, with an enlarged display being most common (58%) followed by a magnifier or visual aid (33%). On three out of four occasions, the voters found that the devices they needed were set up and ready to go at their polling station, and 97% of the time the election officials knew how to set up and use the tools.

In their preference for where to vote in the future, voters with visual impairments were more likely than people with disabilities in general and just as likely as people without disabilities to prefer to vote in person at their polling place (68% for people with visual impairment; 68% for people without disability, versus 58% for people with disabilities in general) (Schur, Adya, & Kruse, 2013). Voters with vision loss were less likely than people without disabilities to prefer voting online.

Let's Go Vote!

VisionAware blogger DeAnna Quietwater Noriega wrote "Democracy isn't simple or easy. We can use our power at the polls to elect people we believe will represent our values... If we opt out of participating, then others who may hold opinions different from ours will decide outcomes. Living in a democracy means taking our responsibilities seriously to be an active part of the process." Be sure to read DeAnna's heartfelt blog post on VisionAware .

Image reads: Democracy isn't simple or easy. Living in a democracy means taking our responsibilities seriously to be an active part of the process. -Deanna Quietwater Noriega, VisionAware Blogger

Equipped with the knowledge of laws and the potential impact of voters in the disability community (which outnumbers eligible African American voters and eligible Latino voters), people with vision loss can have the greatest impact when everyone takes action, registers, and votes - whether voting early, absentee, or on Election Day, November 8th!

One easy place to get registered is at vote.org - which includes options for registering, verifying your registration, and requesting an absentee ballot. Another good way to verify your voter registration is to call your state's Secretary of State's office (you can also call this office to request an application by mail or to ask voting-related questions).

The Help America Vote Act instituted Protection and Advocacy for Voter Access efforts (PAVAs) in every state. A PAVA:

  • "Educates voters, election workers, and other persons involved in the voting process about the rights of people with disabilities.
  • Provides information to people with disabilities about voter registration and the chance to register to vote.
  • Provides advice about access to polling places on Election Day.
  • Works with groups representing people with disabilities and other organizations in registering voters and surveying polling places for accessibility.
  • Represents/advocates for individuals with disabilities who have complaints about the voting process" (AAPD, 2016).

Find out more by contacting the Protection and Advocacy agency in your state .

The American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) has organized the "REV UP" (Register, Educate, Vote, and Use your Power) effort to get out the vote among people with disabilities. Their website provides helpful links for national and state resources. The REV UP toolkit (which can be customized by state) includes the following reminders of voting rights and accommodations:

When registering to vote, it is good to know:

  • Check voter registration and voting requirements and deadlines for your state at USA.gov
  • Offices that have voter registration forms must also offer to help you complete the forms, unless you refuse assistance
  • Political parties, activist groups, and private citizens can give out application forms. If they do, they must help you register, too, whether or not you agree with their politics or point of view.
  • If an agency is providing you with services in your home, and if they offer voter registration services, they must provide those voter registration services at your home.
  • If you reside somewhere else that is not in the same county as your permanent address, you can register to vote by mail in the county where your permanent address is. Then you can vote with an absentee ballot.

In any election for a federal office, you have the right:

  • to vote privately and independently.
  • to get help from a person of your choice or an election worker, except that you cannot be assisted by an agent of your employer or union or a candidate for office.
  • to a physically accessible polling place, including accessible parking and the use of an accessible voting machine.
  • to have sample ballots in alternative format.
  • to go back and make corrections if you make a mistake before submitting your ballot.

In some states - like Virginia - early in-person voting is only available to people who meet certain qualifying criteria. Often, having a disability is a qualifying rationale for voting early. This option could save you lots of time! In some cases, you can even register to vote and vote early, all in one visit! Check with your local election office for more details.

If you vote using an absentee ballot:

  • You have a right to an accessible ballot.
  • Be sure to verify that you have requested your ballot before your state's deadline.
  • Be sure to verify that you have returned your ballot on time and following the instructions.

If voting in person (early or on election day), you might want to bring:

  • headphones to hear your ballot,
  • photo identification (check the laws for your state),
  • a hand-held magnifier (if you typically use one), and/or
  • a trusted sighted assistant (if you prefer to vote with assistance).

Curious about voting with an accessible machine? Read about VisionAware blogger Empish Thomas' first voting experience with an accessible voting machine (spoiler alert - getting access to the machine first required a lot of self-advocacy!)

If you experience a problem at the polls:

  • Talk to the head election judge. If he/she cannot fix it, ask him/her to contact a city/county election official. If that doesn't work, call 866-OUR-VOTE (a voter helpline service from the nonpartisan Election Protection Coalition). Spanish-speaking/bilingual voters may wish to call 888-Ve-Y-Vota, and Asian language speaking voters can call 888-API-VOTE.
  • If your complaint is not resolved, file a written complaint before leaving your polling place.
  • You may also submit a complaint to the Department of Justice Voting section:

One final thought as you head off to the polls: Noted disability rights advocate Justin Dart once said, "Vote like your life depends on it - because it does!" At AFB, we want to encourage you to exercise this valuable right, no matter who you vote for. We wish you the best of luck! Here's hoping that in 2016, voter participation rates for people with vision loss are through the roof, evidence of our community's passion, power, and participation!

Want to tell us about your voting experience? Email visionaware@afb.net

Please subscribe to the DirectConnect Newsletter to stay informed about the new National Agenda on Vision and Aging (as well as to receive the quarterly Navigator and other important updates from the AFB Policy Center). To subscribe, go to http://www.afb.org/myafb.aspx and log in (if you have registered before) or follow the link to "become a member" to create a newsletter account. Once you have an account and are logged in, follow the link to "Newsletters," check the box next to AFB DirectConnect, and click submit!

References

American Association of People with Disabilities [AAPD]. (2016). REV UP toolkit - Template (word). Retrieved from http://www.aapd.com/our-focus/voting/rev-up-images-and-toolkits/

Igielnik, R. (2016, September 22). A political profile of disabled Americans. Election 2016. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/09/22/a-political-profile-of-disabled-americans/?utm_content=buffera556f&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

Schur, L., Adya, M., & Kruse, D. (2013, July 18). Disability, voter turnout, and voting difficulties in the 2012 elections. Retrieved from http://smlr.rutgers.edu/content/disability-and-voter-turnout

Schur, L. & Kruse, D. (2016, August 12). Projecting the number of eligible voters with disabilities in the November 2016 elections. Retrieved from http://smlr.rutgers.edu/content/disability-and-voter-turnout

Image reads: Vote like your life depends on it, because it does! - Justin Dart, Disability Rights Advocate

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