Voting in 2020 Was Less Fraught for Disabled Voters Than in Years Past

A study released Wednesday by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission says that fewer people with disabilities experienced trouble voting in 2020 than in 2012.

All is calm at the ballot drop-off location outside the Ocean Beach Public Library in San Diego. (Courthouse News photo/Barbara Leonard)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Americans with disabilities had an easier time voting in the 2020 election than in years past, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission reported Wednesday.

The 52-page study was conducted to spot the gaps in accessibility between voters with disabilities and those without, in light of how the Covid-19 pandemic impacted regional election boards.

After surveying 2,569 people — a group that consisted of 1,782 voters with various disabilities and 787 voters without disabilities — researchers found that voting difficulties for people with disabilities declined substantially from 2012 to 2020.

As compared with people without disabilities in the same age groups, however, people with disabilities still had a 7% lower turnout rate. Another finding was that, among voters with disabilities, roughly 11% of encountered difficulties voting in 2020 — double the rate faced by people without disabilities.

The independent federal agency commissioned Rutgers University to conduct the report, with the findings scrutinized by Lisa Schur and Douglas Kruse, two professors in the university’s disability research program who both collaborated on the similar 2012 study. 

Schur said in a phone call Wednesday that, with all the unknowns of the pandemic, it was a pleasant surprise to find that the difficulties experienced by people with disabilities had declined.

Additional mail-in voting and early voting options “surely played a big role” in the jump in accessibility for disabled voters, Kruse added. Compared with the 2012 survey, the 2020 survey had more questions about these additional options, he said.

“Obviously, we asked more questions about voting by mail in 2020 and drop boxes — drop boxes were not even a concept back in 2012,” he said. 

According to the study, there were more voters with disabilities than voters without who used mail-in ballots. 

“People with mobility impairments and those needing help with daily activities were the most likely to use mail ballots (55% for each group, compared to 44% among voters without disabilities),” the report states. “Both early voting and voting by mail are designed to make voting easier. Three-fourths (74%) of voters with disabilities used one of these two methods in 2020, compared with just over two-thirds (69%) of voters without disabilities.

The report found that, as compared with 10% of non-disabled voters, 18% of disabled voters reported more difficulties voting in person. Again, this is lower than in 2012 when 30% of disabled voters reported difficulties voting in-person.”

Kruse explained that mail-in voting is simpler for most voters in general.

“Really, for most people with and without disabilities voting by mail is easier. You don’t have to deal with getting into the polling place. You don’t have to deal with the voting equipment.”

However, “for people with vision impairments, voting by mail can actually be harder,” he said. The report found that roughly 5% of voters with disabilities had difficulties using a mail ballot.

It’s important to have options because there is no one-size-fits-all solution for voters with disabilities, Kruse and Schur noted, as voters need various adjustments for various impairments. 

“We’re not making recommendations. But if we were to make recommendations, it would be to make sure that there are plenty of other options,” Kruse said of the report’s results.

“The more options that people have, the better,” Schur said, noting that making it easy to vote by mail is definitely a great idea, as is making sure that polling places are accessible and providing drop-box and other curbside-voting options. 

“That can only help turnout,” Schur said, emphasizing that everyone faces different kinds of limitations and has different voting preferences.

The study also found that more disabled voters required assistance than nondisabled voters, and that those who experienced difficulties were most likely to have either vision or cognitive impairments.

Kruse noted that while only around 11% of voters with disabilities encountered trouble voting, early estimates, which will be cemented when the census numbers are finalized, suggest this could prove to be around 2 million people. 

Both the 2012 and 2020 studies were designed according to the research mandates under the Help America Vote Act, a 2002 law that was implemented with the goal of addressing voting systems and voter access shortfalls.

One question the researchers added in 2020 asked whether — in light of the Trump campaign’s allegations of mail-in voter fraud, as well as delays suffered by the U.S. Postal Service — voters were concerned about election integrity and that their vote would be accurately counted. The answer: “Voters with disabilities were more likely than those without disabilities to say they are ‘highly confident’ their vote was accurately counted in 2020.”

Acknowledging the pandemic presented unprecedented challenges, EAC chairman Ben Hovland tipped his hat to election officials for all progress made in terms of disability voting access.

“In an election year with so many obstacles and unknowns, the improvement in accessibility for voters with disabilities is a testament to the hard work and dedication of election officials,” Hovland said in a statement Wednesday. 

“This study provides the EAC with indispensable feedback as we continue our work with election officials and accessibility experts to ensure all Americans can vote privately and independently,” he continued.

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