People with disabilities face barriers to vote

Rob Johnson stopped at the table at a polling station in Rockingham County with his father and his guide dog.

Johnson’s dad said there was a woman sitting in front of him, so Johnson, who is legally blind, asked her for a ballot to vote in the 2000 presidential election.

“It’s right there in front of you,” the woman said. “Right there on the table.”

Johnson said the woman’s attitude made him angry.

“In case you could not tell, I can’t see,” Johnson said. “So how would I know the ballot is right there in front of me?”

In response, the woman huffed at him.

“She just didn’t want to help me,” Johnson said.

Johnson spoke with the polling station’s supervisor and voted with his dad’s assistance. But Johnson said he was upset by the experience.

Matthew Herr, attorney and policy analyst for Disability Rights North Carolina, said these situations when voting are not unusual for people with disabilities.

“Even if someone wasn’t denied the right to vote, they got a lot of pushback,” Herr said. “Either from, you know, staff maybe, treating the person’s disability… them not necessarily being necessarily positive about having to give that person accommodation.”

In North Carolina, about 76 percent of people with disabilities are registered to vote, compared with 90 percent among general population, according to Disability Rights N.C.

Voter turnout in 2008 for people with disabilities was 14.4 percent points lower than the general population in North Carolina, compared with a 7-percentage point deficit nationally, according to a study by Rutgers University. In 2012, that deficit was 5.7 percentage points nationally — 7 percentage points in North Carolina. If people with disabilities voted at the same rate as people without disabilities, there would have been 3 million more voters in 2012, according to a study at Rutgers University.

“I think any barrier to voting is a problem for folks with disabilities,” Herr said. “And there are barriers sort of throughout the whole process.”

Polling stations offer accommodations to help people with disabilities cast their ballot, including a voting machine for people with vision impairments and curbside voting.

Tracy Reams, director of the Orange County Board of Elections, said in Orange County, those machines are set up before the polling station opens, and each station has designated curbside voting parking spaces with signs to direct people.

But Herr said many stations in North Carolina do not set up those machines until someone requests it, so a person who needs accommodations must wait longer to vote.

At other stations, Herr said someone has to go inside the building to request curbside voting, which, he said, “kind of defeats the whole purpose of curbside voting.”

Herr said many workers at polling stations are uninformed about how to assist or interact with people with disabilities. That lack of information can lead to mistreatment of people with disabilities who are trying to vote.

Reams said she has not heard of any issues in Orange County, because they address working with voters with disabilities when training workers at polling stations.

”We let them know how they can provide assistance and who is able to provide assistance,” she said.

Reams said when choosing polling stations, the board only selects places that meet criteria from the American Disabilities Act.

But when studying Orange County in 2010, Disability Rights N.C. found barriers at all three surveyed polling stations, with an average of 2.33 barriers per station.

Herr said many voters with disabilities rely on absentee ballots, but he said barrier to absentee voting concerned him in the 2016 election. A bill signed into law in August, 2013 requires two witnesses on an absentee ballot, instead of one. The law poses a challenge for voters with small social circles, Herr said.

“Getting people to witness their ballot can be a challenge,” Herr said.

Herr said overall, available accommodations are not properly advertised. In fact, Johnson did not know there was a machine that would allow him to cast his own ballot until this year.

After hearing about the accommodations, Johnson contacted the board of elections in Rockingham County. He helped organize an event to educate on voting rights for his support group for people with vision impairments. The event included a demonstration on using the voting machines.

Johnson voted early, and this time, his experience was positive. When he entered the polling station, the machine was already on the table, and he said he cast his ballot without assistance for the first time since losing his eyesight.

“It made me really proud of North Carolina and my county,” Johnson said.

Herr said Johnson made a lasting impact in his county.

“If we have someone in every county doing it, that would end up having a big impact throughout the state,” Herr said.

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