By Gregory Korte, USA TODAY
As many as 3.2 million Americans with disabilities are "sidelined" on Election Day despite 20 years of laws seeking to boost their access to the polls, a new study shows.
Voter turnout for people with disabilities is 11 percentage points lower than non-disabled, a number that "doesn't appear to be shrinking significantly," said Lisa Schur of Rutgers University, co-author of the study in Social Science Quarterly. "If we could decrease the gap - I'm not saying we could totally close it - it could affect the November election, especially if it's close," Schur said.
One problem is a motivation gap by many eligible disabled voters, who are often socially isolated and disinterested in politics. But scholars and advocates say there are still barriers for those who want to vote.
Case study: New York City, where a federal judge this week ordered the Board of Elections to do a better job to accommodate the city's more than 635,000 disabled voters.
U.S. District Judge Deborah Batts cited a litany of problems: wheelchair ramps too narrow or steep, missing handicapped entrance signs, and voting booths too close to the wall for wheelchairs to get to.
The ruling was a victory for voters like Denise McQuade, a 64-year-old Brooklyn woman who uses a wheelchair after contracting polio at age 3. She described the ramp at her polling place as a "ski slope."
She now votes absentee, which she calls a "second-class ballot" that forces her to cast votes before she's made up her mind. She says other disabled voters have given up entirely. "The more barriers you throw up in front of people, the less likely it is that they will come out and vote," McQuade says.
The city said it inspects every precinct for accessibility on Election Day and was unaware of problems. But the judge noted the city's own records show complaints the city never responded to.
The city's attitude was "a complete shock to us," said Jim Weisman of the United Spinal Association, one of the plaintiffs. "We entered this case thinking this is a really simple fix."
After the ruling, city attorney Stephen Kitzinger said, "We are disappointed with the decision and respectfully disagree."
The judge instructed a magistrate to work out a remedy. Weisman said his goal is a disabled coordinator in every polling place in New York City - and eventually the nation.
A Government Accountability Office report after the 2008 election found that only 27% of polling places had no obstacles for disabled voters. That's progress - the number was 16% in 2000.
Once inside the polling place, additional barriers emerge , said Jim Dickson, a disability rights advocate. "Some of the machines work well. Some of the machines are a joke - a very expensive, bad joke," he said. Accessible machines are often turned off or missing parts, and poll workers don't know how to use them.
The voting gap is largest for people with mental and emotional disabilities. Hearing impaired people actually vote more than the general population, Schur's study found - perhaps because of a strong deaf culture and because older people develop hearing loss later in life.
Disabled people aren't a monolithic voting block, but generally favor a bigger role for government in health care and the economy, Schur said. And, like other lower income and less educated voters, they skew slightly Democratic, supporting John Kerry over George W. Bush by 3 points in 2004.