The Majority of Polling Places are Inaccessible. A Disabled Voter Bill of Rights Could Change That.

We are seeing a concerted effort to push disabled voters like me out of the democratic process across the South—and we have to fight back.

Dom Kelly

Disabled people face a mountain of barriers that make it difficult for them to vote and participate in our democracy. Illustration by Terry Laban

We are seeing a concerted effort to push disabled voters like me out of the democratic process across the South — and we must fight back. 

More than 400 anti-voting measures have been introduced in 48 states in recent years, a strategic attempt to exclude marginalized voters. And the moves to prevent accessible voting have proven disturbingly successful, despite federal laws intended to make voting easier.

Consider my wife’s grandmother in Atlanta. The pandemic in full swing, Grandma was so excited to vote in the 2020 Democratic primary. She still recalls Aug. 6, 1965, as one of the most important days in her life— her 28th birthday, the day the Voting Rights Act was signed, the day she gained her right to vote as a Black woman in America.

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Grandma was born and raised in North Carolina and worked as a sharecropper in a cotton field as a kid, just a couple generations removed from her enslaved ancestors. She cares deeply about voting because she’s spent her entire life subjected to segregation and racism, and she spent the first 10 years of her adult life disenfranchised.

Grandma has voted in almost every election since 1965. But in June 2020, the circumstances changed.

In-person voting was out of the question; she is an immune-compromised disabled person with mobility challenges. My mother-in-law helped Grandma request an absentee ballot, but it never arrived. Their emails and calls to the county election office also failed.

After it was too late, they finally heard back that the office never received the ballot application.

This is the first election where I wasn’t allowed to vote since my 28th birthday — the day I gained my right to vote,” Grandma, now 86, tells me.

Grandma’s story is not unique. It’s emblematic of a much larger issue: Disabled voters are often left out of democracy.

As of 2016, just 17% of U.S. polling locations were fully accessible. Volunteers at my organization — New Disabled South — tell us about lines they physically can’t wait in because they’re so long, polling places with inaccessible voting machines, poll workers with little training, and a lack of mobile and curbside assistance, among other issues.

“This is the first election where I wasn’t allowed to vote since my 28th birthday—the day I gained my right to vote."

As a person who lives with cerebral palsy in Georgia, I’ve had my share of experiences. Once, after a move, I confirmed the change in my voter registration only to show up at my new polling place to learn my information was not actually in the system. I requested a provisional ballot, but there were no chairs for me. I had to stand, but my voting table was short, which meant I had to stand and bend, which was physically painful.

At a minimum, voting should not be painful, and chairs are an easy accommodation.

Later, I eagerly took on the role of senior adviser on disability for Stacey Abrams’ gubernatorial campaign, designing the first-ever statewide organizing program in Georgia to turn out disabled voters. I observed hundreds of disabled voters facing similar issues to what Grandma and I faced: inaccessible polling places, lack of voting machines, long lines, inability to get an absentee ballot.

I heard from Deaf voters and blind voters who said poll workers had no idea how to guide them, physically disabled voters who knew their polling places had changed but had no transportation to actually get there, and immune-compromised voters who opted to vote by mail only to discover their one ballot drop location had been moved indoors (stemming from one of many anti-voting measures enacted in Georgia since 2020).

Voting restrictions on drop boxes, mail-in ballots, early-voting time windows and the limiting (or even criminalizing) of assistance for disabled voters all play key roles in what has become a focused attack on the voting rights of disabled people — not just in the South but across the country. Unquestionably, Black disabled people like Grandma experience the brunt of these calculated efforts.

The right to vote and joyfully participate in democracy is key to liberation for all disabled people.

I co-founded New Disabled South to build a political home for disabled people and build our political power. One of our first big projects is to pass a Disabled Voter Bill of Rights in five Southern states, the first of which is aimed at Georgia for 2024. A standalone bill to protect accessible voting for disabled people has never been done, and we have specific provisions set for mail-in ballots, protections for those assisting disabled voters with their ballots, curbside voting, accessible polling locations, and more accessibility issues.

We live in a country where a high percentage of polling places are inaccessible, where just seven of the 14 Southern states we work in offer curbside voting, and where the majority of our states have introduced and passed suppressive legislation.

We must fight back, and we must win. We need a mass mobilization to make polling places accessible, and we need a wave of pro-voting reforms to counter decades of inaction and attacks.

The right to vote and joyfully participate in democracy is key to liberation for all disabled people.

We won’t stop fighting until we get there.

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