The right to vote is considered a universal human right, recognizing that taking part in this type of civic action is central to any democratic governments founded on the will of the people. Unfortunately, for the over 6 million individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) living in the United States, this is a right often made difficult to exercise or is sometimes outright denied.
As the next wave of elections occurs, it is critical that direct support staff (DSP) and IDD providers are ensuring this is a right all individuals with IDD can exercise. Just as providers focus on choice-making in other aspects of life, they can also help promote choice-making and self-advocacy when it comes to voting.
Barriers to Voting for People With IDD
Historically, individuals with IDD have been denied the right to vote due to ideas surrounding competency. While voter turnout for people with disabilities has now increased and many more people with IDD exercise their right to vote, laws regarding people with IDD voting still differ state-to-state. Additionally, those with guardianship have traditionally been systematically denied the right to vote due to the same assumption that guardianship means they are not “competent” enough to vote.
There are also structural barriers that prevent individuals with IDD from voting. Despite several federal laws protecting the voting rights of individuals with disabilities, many polling places remain inaccessible for mobility devices, individuals who are blind or have low vision, or those who require physical assistance with voting. Even alternate methods of voting can be inaccessible — as recently as this year, disability advocates in North Carolina filed a lawsuit against the state’s board of elections, stating that the absentee ballots being used were inaccessible to voters with vision disabilities.
In 2017, the Council on Quality and Leadership (CQL) conducted a study reviewing Personal Outcome Measures© interviews from approximately 1,300 individuals with IDD. Their findings indicate some common barriers to voting for people with IDD:
- Only 56.7% of people with IDD participate in voting.
- Those who primarily communicate with assistive communication devices were 4.5 times less likely to vote than those who primarily use verbal communication.
- People with any type of guardianship (assisted decision making, full guardianship, or other) were much less likely to vote than those with independent decision making.
- Those who live in provider-owned or operated housing were 1.7 times less likely to vote.
The same CQL study found several protective factors that encourage voting among people with IDD:
- Those who lived in their own home or apartment were more likely to participate in voting.
- Those who could choose their own DSP staff were 2.2 times more likely to vote.
- Those served by organizations who actively supported individuals’ right to vote were twice as likely to vote.
7 Tips for Helping People With IDD Vote
Given what is known about the barriers that prevent people with IDD from voting, as well as the protective factors that can encourage it, what can IDD providers do right now to help persons served vote? The following are seven tips to help providers get started:
1. Educate persons served on the importance of voting
Explain why it’s important to vote in the first place and how critical it is that policy makers hear the voices of people with disabilities. Provide education on voting in local, state, and federal elections, and discuss issues they care about beyond just disability-related issues.
2. Help persons served register to vote
Assist individuals with confirming that they are registered to voteand completing a voter registration form if they are not. It is also helpful to ensure that the individual’s voter registration is up to date. Deadlines for voter registration vary state-by-state, so it’s important to know your state’s laws regarding voter registration.
3. Know the voting rights of people with disabilities
Especially if you are directly assisting a person served with voting, you want to make sure you understand all applicable laws that impact the ability for people with disabilities to vote. The American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) has a list of the rights of voters with disabilities and other resources to help.
4. Know your state’s laws on voting
As mentioned earlier, each state has different laws around voting for individuals with IDD. Each state has a designated protection and advocacy organization for people with disabilities that will have more information on state laws for you to be aware of. You can find your local protection and advocacy agency here.
5. Know the different options for voting
For most states, you have several options when it comes to voting; you can vote absentee, during early voting, or in-person on election day. Consider these options with the person served and plan ahead, as each voting route will have different deadlines associated with it. Also, prep ahead of time by downloading a sample ballot from your local board of elections website and assist the person served with researching the candidates running for office.
6. Organize ways to help persons served access voting locations
If absentee or mail-in voting is not available to the person served, consider ways to help the individual access voting locations during early voting or on election day. This may happen through the agency, but it might also involve organizing family, friends, and other natural supports to help the individual exercise their right to vote.
7. Set up a voting registration drive at your organization
Remember, organizations that actively support the right to vote typically have a higher voter turnout among persons served. Consider organizing voting drives and even candidate forums for local elections as well as midterm and primary elections.
The information needed to help people with IDD vote can feel overwhelming. Thankfully, there are a plethora of organizations with a wealth of knowledge on helping people with disabilities vote:
- ANCOR (American Network of Community Options and Resources) has a 2020 Election Resource center with resources regarding registering to vote, election timelines, and learning about candidates and other issues.
- AADP’s Voter Resource Center has several resources and links to other sites that help promote voting for people with disabilities.
- AADP’s REV UP campaign is composed of state and national coalitions that work to advance the disability vote, with the mission of fostering civic engagement and protecting the voting rights of disabled Americans.
- The Arc of the U.S. has a voting resources page that includes disability voting guides in English, Spanish, and Plain Language.
- Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN) has a toolkit on voting for self-advocates that includes information on how voting works and how to prepare to vote.
- CQL has a data brief available on exercising voting rights for people with disabilities.
- #CripTheVote is a nonpartisan online movement activating and engaging disabled individuals on policies and practices important to the disability community.
- The National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) has information on getting ready to vote and a directory of all local protection and advocacy organizations.