Here’s the good news: Voter turnout among people with disabilities increased substantially during the 2018 midterm elections compared to four years prior.
The bad? More than two million Americans with disabilities stayed home during November’s election because they still have trouble getting to the polls, in a political system in which they are undervalued and their needs not always fully taken into account, a new study by Rutgers University found.
Democrats running for president in 2020 are looking for ways to connect with this potentially powerful, but under-appreciated, voting bloc.
Several of the 2020 candidates have vowed to repeal laws allowing employers to pay disabled Americans less than the minimum wage. They also promise to expand healthcare benefits to provide better mental health services; invest in new technologies aimed at assisting members of the community; and increase funding for special education in schools, according to a survey from the Disability Rights Center – New Hampshire.
There is still plenty of room for improvement: None of the presidential campaign websites were fully inclusive toward people with physical disabilities. But the campaigns are making not insignificant efforts to increase accessibility: Some are making the use of a sign language interpreter the default during rallies. Others have promised to appoint a cabinet secretary with physical disabilities. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D), who is reported to be fluent in American Sign Language, said in April that he would “absolutely” commit to including people with disabilities in future campaign ads and hiring them as campaign staff.
And Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) said at an event in May that she would “commit to making sure someone with disabilities” is part of her cabinet. Gillibrand’s pledge came after she faced criticism from disability rights advocates for co-sponsoring a bill that would put a time limit on opioid prescriptions.
If Democrats are successful in their outreach to voters in the disability community, they will be tapping into an under-represented voting bloc. Turnout among voters with physical disabilities in several presidential swing states during the 2018 election was significantly lower than the rate of participation for the general population, according to the study.
While 14.3 million voters with disabilities cast ballots during the 2018 midterms, they were still under-represented compared to Americans with no physical impairments. Had they voted at the same rate, an additional 2.35 million disabled citizens would have cast ballots, the study found.
“Despite facing many barriers to voting, people with disabilities are politically engaged and will be a significant part of the electorate in 2020,” Lisa Schur, a Rutgers University professor who co-authored the report, said in a statement. “It’s good for democracy when we see such increased turnout by a group that is historically underrepresented at the polls,” she added.
Still, there has been significant progress in increasing the participation rates for people with a wide range of disabilities. During the 2018 blue wave midterm elections, voter turnout among people with disabilities surged by 8.5% compared to the 2014 midterm elections, according to the Rutgers study. The surge included people with hearing and visual impairments, those with mental or cognitive challenges, and people with difficulty walking up stairs, getting dressed, or bathing, among others.
One major reason for the lower voter turnout among disabled people, is that they often struggle to physically get to polls. Despite a number of states making efforts to reduce barriers to voting, people with disabilities cited transportation issues as a reason for not voting at a higher rate than non-disabled people.
Other reasons frequently cited for low turnout by people with physical challenges include voter ID laws, particularly in Republican-controlled states; inaccessible polling places; difficulties in finding accessible election materials; and polling workers who were not trained to engage with disabled people, a report from the Center for American Progress found earlier this year. (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.)
The study also attributed low voter turnout among the disability community to lower income rates, and less outreach to members of this group, among other factors.