A Full and Equal Opportunity

"Fight for the things that you care about but, do it in a way that others will follow you." - Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was this year's recipient of the National Constitution Centers Liberty Medal for her efforts to advance liberty and equality for all. The center made this announcement on August 26th, 2020, to coincide with the 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote. Even though the 19th amendment did not specify that only white women could vote, both women and men of color were restricted from voting due to the unfair rules such as, ability to read, poll taxes, inability to prove citizenship, and threats of violence. It wasn't until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that these practices were officially outlawed in the deep south, 95 years after the passing of the 15th amendment, which gave black men the right to vote in 1870. 

Many of us may know that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed by Lyndon B. Johnson and was widely considered the most important legislation passed by Congress during the civil rights movement. Its purpose was to eliminate barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote. However, people may not understand that when the Voting Rights Act was amended in 1982 and it was the first piece of legislation that was designed to improve access and voter rights for American citizens with disabilities. The act was amended five times to expand the voting rights of minorities. I bring this up because I didn't know that the Voting Rights Act had anything to do with disability until I started researching. Here's a list of other events that have helped make voting more accessible for people with disabilities.

A Timeline of Voting Rights for People with Disabilities

A Right of Passage February 1980 Kathy Francoeur (Bates) voted for the first time, in the NH presidential primary, by absentee ballot because her local polling place was not accessible. I’m including this in the timeline because it’s important to me and I want everyone to know that I was able to vote even though it wasn’t easy--but it was my right. It was also before anyone addressed the issue of accessibility and voting.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, as Amended in 1982 Section 208 of the VRA provides for voters who need assistance to vote by reason of blindness, disability, or inability to read or write. Any such voter may be given assistance by a person of the voter's choice, other than the voter's employer or union.

The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984 This required that all registration sites and polling places for federal elections were accessible to people with disabilities. If accessibility is not possible, other voting options must be provided on the day of the election.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 1990  This is a federal civil rights law that provides protections to people with disabilities. Title II of the ADA requires state and local governments ("public entities") to ensure that people with disabilities have a full and equal opportunity to vote. The ADA's provisions apply to all aspects of voting including, voter registration, site selection, and the casting of ballots, whether on Election Day or during an early voting process.

National Voter Registration Act of (NVRA) 1993  Voter registration is the first step in the voting process and among people with disabilities registration rates have been low. The NVRA requires all offices that provide public assistance or state-funded programs that primarily serve persons with disabilities to also provide the opportunity to register to vote in federal elections. Some examples of agencies that are required to provide this assistance include the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Medicaid.    

Help America Vote Act (HAVA) 2002 HAVA was created to make reforms to the voting process and standards to improve voter accessibility. The law gives each state money to upgrade technology and develop systems to make it easier to vote privately and independently. The Election Assistance Commission (EAC) was formed to help states with compliance under the law and distribution of funds.

NH unveils the One4All Voting System, February 2016 The goal is to have one universally designed system that everyone can use, a disability is not a prerequisite. The set up consists of a tablet with a docking station, keyboard, headset and microphone, and a printer. The voter has several ways to record their choices. He/she can use the touchscreen on the tablet, the keyboard, or speak into the microphone on the headset. The voter then has the opportunity to review their ballot and approve it before it's printed. The tablet is setup with a screen reader if needed. The more popular the system becomes, the closer we will be to voter equality.  

Voting and Covid-19 2020  State and federal medical experts have advised that voters should take precautions to avoid COVID-19. Concern over COVID-19 has been deemed a disability for the 2020 elections to meet the requirements of our state constitution for absentee voting. NH Voters may vote by absentee due to these concerns by signing the disability portion of the absentee affidavit envelope,” stated the Secretary of State Bill Gardner. According to WMUR, Channel 9, "Absentee ballots accounted for 90,322 votes – or about 30 percent of the total votes cast. That's far more than any past election" (NH state primary).

NH launches accessible absentee voting system 2020  This system allows voters who are blind or have a print disability to request, receive, and cast their ballots electronically on their personal computers, which must be equipped with screen readers. The voter will receive an official affidavit envelope for their completed ballots, which can be signed electronically and mailed.

According to a report from Rutgers University, Projecting the Number of Eligible Voters with Disabilities in the November 2020 Elections, the number of eligible voters with disabilities has increased by nearly 20 percent since the 2008 Presidential Election. For non-disabled voters, the increase averaged around 12 percent. The increase in potential voters with disabilities most likely is due to the aging of our population and advances in medical technology. Over 38 million people with disabilities will be eligible to vote in the 2020 elections. There are also over 67 million potential voters who either have a disability or live with someone who has a disability. The question is, will we take advantage of the opportunity we have to bring forth the issues that are important to us? Issues such as, creating job opportunities, healthcare, and equal access to affordable higher education, are all community issues and these issues are also disability issues.

From where I sit… I still remember how excited I was to vote for the very first time, way back in 1980. My family was excited too. I knew that having the right to vote meant I had a voice, and my opinion mattered. I love to vote because it is my civil right, and with rights comes responsibility. It is our responsibility to educate our leaders about the issues that are important to us. I usually like to vote in person because it is a community event and I want to help make sure that all systems are "go" concerning voter access. This year, however, I voted by absentee ballot. It was so easy because I didn't have to worry about transportation. There are lots of reasons that I vote, but as corny as this may sound, voting is a hopeful thing to do. By voting, you’re showing you believe in something bigger than yourself. I don't really think perfection is possible in society, but voting can bring about change for the better, and there is hope for the future.

I would like to leave you with one more quote, "The struggle for the Voting Rights Act taught us that people who love this country can change it. Don't give away your power – go vote." President Barack Obama