The first time UNC sophomore Eleanor Bolton cast a ballot, she faced more challenges than the typical voter.
She said her polling place in Davidson, N.C., was not accessible for people who use wheelchairs, and volunteers didn’t know how to help accommodate voters with disabilities to cast their ballots.
According to Disability Rights North Carolina, people with disabilities can have trouble voting for a number of reasons, including being unable to use assistive technology when they vote because poll workers don't know how to work the accessible voting machine or because the machine is not functioning.
“A lot of times, even though it's required by law that voter and polling locations are accessible, they're really not accessible to everyone and they're not audited in a way that makes sense for every single disability,” Bolton said.
The American Civil Liberties Union found that one in every five people who are eligible to vote has a disability.
Furthermore, data analysis done by professors at Rutgers University estimated that if people with disabilities voted at the same rate as people without disabilities with the same demographic characteristics, there would be about 1.75 million more voters in the United States.
Bolton said it is no surprise that voters with disabilities don’t turn out on Election Day as much as those without disabilities.
“Even where the rules are clear and allow for accessible voting, there is inconsistent understanding and knowledge of those rules,” Corye Dunn, director of public policy for Disability Rights NC, said.
All polling places in North Carolina are required by statute to be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. This includes providing accessible entrances, offering curbside voting, having working voting machines for people with visual disabilities and ensuring there is no prejudice against people with intellectual disabilities.
“We look for accessibility, whether or not voters can get in and out easily, and we make accommodations,” Jamie Cox, the chairperson of the Orange County Board of Elections, said.
Cox said the Orange County Board of Elections just added a ramp to the Carrboro Town Council polling location in order to make it easier for voters in wheelchairs to get into the polling place.
The County offers a number of voting options for people with disabilities who are unable to vote in traditional booths, he added.
Curbside voting, for example, enables people with mobility disabilities to remain in their vehicle while voting, Cox explained. Voters use a call button to summon an election official who then transports their ballot and paperwork. The official also processes the documents for the voter.
Absentee mail-in voting is another option for voters who are homebound or have difficulties getting to a polling place. Citizens must request an absentee ballot by Nov. 1 and return it to their county board of elections no later than 5 p.m. on Nov. 8.
Additionally, people can request an absentee ballot to fill out from their homes but must have two witnesses or a notary sign their envelope.
If people with visual impairments choose to vote in person, there are accessible voting machines that guide them through marking their ballot.
Despite the availability of modified voting options, Dunn said there can still be problems. For example, she said accessible voting machines are often unplugged or broken, and finding witnesses for absentee ballots can be difficult for some voters.
Ricky Scott, a voting rights activist who is blind, said he won a lawsuit along with six other individuals and organizations against the state over the right to an accessible absentee ballot in 2020.
The ruling stated individuals with visual disabilities are now able to use a secure online link to request, receive, mark and return absentee ballots.
“Having the right to vote is the basics of this democratic system and we need to have a democratic system where every single citizen in this country can vote with no impediments to that practice,” Scott said. “We still have much work to do on that because impediments still remain.”
Dunn encourages voters with disabilities to vote early if they want to vote in person. This way, voters can choose a polling location anywhere in the county that works for them and aren’t required to go to their assigned polling location, which is the case on Election Day.
Cox also said he hopes to expand the availability of sites and hours during the early voting period to benefit all voters, including those that are disabled.
“Disabilities manifest in lots and lots of different ways and there's room to support all these voters and to make sure that they can vote,” Dunn said.
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