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The Importance of Absentee Voting for Accessible Elections

Soldier fills out an absentee ballot

In a new report, Thad Hall and Mike Alvarez, political scientists at the University of Utah and Cal Tech respectively, provide the first comprehensive assessment of political participation by people with disabilities in the United States in the 2008 and 2010 elections. Importantly, the report also highlights the impact that various policies can have on the accessibility of elections for people with disabilities. The report is worth a read in its entirety but I will repeat a few of the interesting top-level findings:

  • People with disabilities were less likely to vote than people without disabilities. In 2008, they were 7% less likely; in 2010, they were 3% less likely.
  • People with disabilities were less likely to be registered to vote than people without disabilities. In 2008, they were 4.6% less likely; in 2010, they were 1.2% less likely.
  • Compared to individuals without disabilities, people with disabilities are more likely to report a voter registration problem, having difficulty with voting equipment, and having needed help voting. On a positive note, they were less likely to report having to wait in line. (One reason for this might be some jurisdictions allow voters with disabilities or older voters to move to the front of the line).

Importantly, not all voters with disabilities are the same, and this report emphasizes just how much variation there is between different populations. In particular, as shown in the graph below (data from 2010 elections), individuals with a cognitive difficulty, a self-care difficulty, or an independent living difficulty, vote at significantly lower rates than individuals with no disability. As the report authors explain, “These figures suggest that voters with the most difficulty leaving home or those who worry about potentially navigating crowded, loud locations, or feeling pressured to vote in a specific time frame, are least likely to vote.” This also suggests that efforts to make voting machines and poll places more accessible may not address the primary needs of some voters with disabilities.

One way to better address these particular needs is for states to offer absentee voting (i.e., vote by mail). In 2010, approximately 27 percent of voters with disabilities voted by mail compared with 17 percent of voters without disabilities. And as shown in the graph below, in 2010, two groups of voters with disabilities, those with self-care difficulties and those with independent living difficulties, voted absentee at more than twice the rate of voters without disabilities.

While all 50 states allow some form of absentee voting, how absentee voting policies are implemented differs from state to state. In particular, states vary in whether they allow “no-excuse” absentee voting (i.e., any voter can vote absentee) and whether they offer a permanent absentee voting list (i.e., voters can sign up to automatically receive an absentee ballot for all future elections). Alvarez and Hall find that people with disabilities are more likely to vote if they live in a state with no-excuse absentee voting or permanent absentee voting.

As noted in the report, one of the reasons absentee voting is important for people with disabilities is because it solves the transportation problem associated with voting. Getting to the poll site (and then hoping that it will be physically accessible) is a major challenge for some people. After illness, transportation is the most frequently cited barrier to voting for people with disabilities, reported by approximately 25% of respondents in a national survey. For people without disabilities, transportation is cited by 10% as a “major factor” for not voting, with the top barrier being “too busy.” For all voters, the top reason for not voting is that they simply did not like the choices.

The adoption of no-excuse absentee voting is a relatively recent innovation in election administration practices. In 1972, only Tennessee and Idaho offered no-excuse absentee voting; today, more than thirty states offer it. And some states, like Oregon, have moved to all-mail voting systems (for a breakdown of the absentee voting policies by state, see this map by NCSL). Of course, providing a mail-in absentee ballot does not solve every problem. The report noted that people with disabilities who vote absentee are more likely to need help with the absentee ballot than people without disabilities.

So what are the policy takeaways that one can derive from the findings in this report? I’d suggest at least two:

First, all states should be providing no-excuse absentee voting and permanent absentee voting. Given the clear impact that this has on voter enfranchisement and the relatively minimal costs involved, this should be an easy decision for most state legislatures.

Second, states should provide electronic ballot delivery to all voters. Electronic ballot delivery allows voters to use a computer to download, complete and print their absentee ballots. The voter then mails in these ballots just like current absentee ballots. There are two main benefits of electronic delivery: first, it eliminates the costs of mailing out ballots to voters; and second, it allows individuals with disabilities to use the assistive technology on their computers to complete the ballot. Voters do not send completed ballots over the Internet, so the security risks are no greater than other vote-by-mail systems. Moreover, this option is already available for military and overseas voters in many states so it would be relatively easy to extend it to all voters.

Certainly more can and should be done to help voters with disabilities, and in many states it appears improving absentee voting is one of the “low hanging fruit” for quickly and easily making elections more accessible for many voters.


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