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New State Laws Erect Barriers to Voting for People with Disabilities, Advocates Say

Advocates are expressing alarm over new laws being enacted in a number of states that they say will make it harder for people with disabilities to vote. Central to their concern is the reality that people with disabilities face challenges when it comes to voting in person at polling locations. As a result, these voters rely on such voting methods as absentee ballots and the use of ballot drop boxes, which have been subject to these new laws.

New legislation across several states ostensibly designed to combat illegal voting is restricting the use of absentee balloting, access to ballot drop boxes, the provision of assistance at polling places, and other avenues that people with disabilities have come to depend on to cast their votes.

In Texas, for instance, officials in some counties reported they had thrown out half the absentee ballot applications for an upcoming election, claiming the applications did not meet new ID requirements. In Georgia, a law enacted in March shortens the timeframe for absentee voter applications, bans the distribution of unsolicited mail ballot applications, and limits the number of ballot drop boxes. Among other measures, Florida has made it harder for people to drop off mail-in ballots on behalf of others.

Absentee balloting and other features designed to make voting easier are seen as vital to preserving the civil rights of people with disabilities who otherwise face challenges casting their votes.

“We feel that we have been targeted by the legislature to suppress the disability vote,” Bob Kafka, a coordinator with a disabilities advocacy group called Rev Up Texas, told NPR. “Whether intentionally or not, that is exactly what the reality is.”

The Texas law, which went into effect in December 2021, imposed new rules on people providing assistance at the polls, and subjected them to criminal penalties for offering help that fell outside those regulations. It also required that applicants for absentee ballots submit either a driver’s license number or a partial Social Security number on their absentee ballot application and that it match the number they originally provided on their voter registration form. But many cannot remember which number they used on their voter registrations, resulting in the rejection of hundreds of applications. Compounding the problem, election officials are forbidden by the new law from contacting people in order to correct absentee ballot applications they have rejected, making them liable to imprisonment and heavy fines if they do.

Florida’s new legislation, which among other things limits access to drop boxes for mail-in ballots and makes it harder for people to help others deposit their ballots in those boxes, is facing several legal challenges.

“The legislation has a deliberate and disproportionate impact on elderly voters, voters with disabilities, students, and communities of color,” Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, told the Florida Phoenix.  The League has filed a legal challenge in concert with the Black Voters Matter Fund, the Florida Alliance of Retired Americans, and others. Disability Rights Florida and other groups have filed a separate lawsuit.

The Brennan Center for Justice reported that as of October 2021, at least 19 states had enacted 33 laws that make it harder for Americans to vote.

Some 38 million citizens with disabilities were eligible to vote in the November 2020 election, according to a study by Rutgers University, and 62 percent of them voted, up from 56 percent in 2016, according to government statistics cited in the report. More than 53 percent of people with disabilities used mail-in ballots for that election, compared to 42 percent of voters without disabilities, Rutgers said.

The study found that people with disabilities are almost twice as likely to face challenges voting as those without and that nearly 2 million experienced such difficulties in 2020.