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UD talks barriers to voting for people with disabilities

Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media
Panelists who spoke about voting and people with disabilites at UD

As Election Day in November approaches, the University of Delaware’s Center for Disabilities Studies is talking about civic engagement in the disability community.

In a panel to mark the Center’s 25th anniversary Tuesday, national experts discussed barriers to voting for people with disabilities. Those barriers include polling places that are not ADA-compliant or polling place workers who are unfamiliar with accessible ballot-casting technology.

Michelle Bishop is a voting rights specialist with the National Disability Rights Network. She says across the country, voter participation among disabled people tends to lag behind that of non-disabled people by about six percent.

“That six percent is about an extra three million voters … that’s enough voters to turn any election we’ve ever had in the United States. ”

Delaware Attorney General Matt Denn joined the discussion. He notes that in the First State, disability rights don't tend to factor into candidates’ platforms.

“I’ve run for statewide office a bunch of times and it’s been pretty rare that I’ve been asked questions that are specific to that community and its needs,” he said. “As much as there is a need to make sure that polling places are accessible … there’s an equally compelling need to make sure that people are asked the right questions when they run and are held accountable.”

Beth Mineo is director of the Center for Disability Studies. She hopes the programming will spark dialog to“galvanize” the community.

“When you’re talking about the disability community, we have so far yet to go. Obviously, civic engagement is going to be the thing that eventually changes policy.”

In addition to inaccessibility of polling places, Bishop says state-level voter competency laws can disenfranchise citizens with mental disabilities.

Some states bar voting for individuals under guardianship who have been deemed generally incompetent by a court.

As of 2016, Delaware was one of 25 states with laws barring voting only if a court has determined that an individual specifically lacks the capacity to vote, according to the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network and the National Disability Rights Network.

Bishop adds that if more people with disabilities were included in decision-making processes surrounding elections, there would likely be fewer accessibility issues.

Other panelists included representatives from the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, the American Association of People with Disabilities and Stanford Law School.


Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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