Understanding voters’ rights: Overcoming barriers for the I/DD community

(This article was originally published in the September 2016 issue of Spectrums Magazine.)

By Esther Harlow, Voting Rights Advocate with Disability Rights Oregon

This year’s contentious Presidential election is a hot topic of debate. The #CripTheVote hashtag is reminding America that the voices and votes of the disability community are important to our national conversations. A recent story spurred by #CripTheVote in the Washington Post, “The day I helped my autistic son register to vote,” highlighted some of the myths that surround people with I/DD and voting. In it, the author, Susan, a mother of an adult autistic person, believes someone who tells her that intellectually disabled individuals with guardians don’t have the right to vote. Susan doesn’t know what the rights are in their state (Massachusetts) and finds that other parents in her Facebook group complain about their adult children making uninformed choices when voting. She goes on to quiz her son, Nat, about whether he can name the President. Once he does, she helps him register to vote. She finds the experience pleasantly mundane and empowering, although she is stumped at explaining political parties to him.

Susan and Nat’s experiences reflects common barriers to voting for adults with I/DD. The first is the belief that an individual does not have the right to vote because of their legal status. In Oregon, guardianship does not affect an individual’s voting rights. However, in Washington, if a person had a full guardian appointed before July 24, 2005, the person lost their right to vote unless the court specifically found the person to be rationally capable of voting. If a person had a limited guardian appointed before that date, or a limited or full guardian appointed after that date, they still have the right to vote unless the court specifically took the right away in the guardianship papers.

Disability, intellectual ability or reading ability do not impact the right to vote. Any person has the right to vote even if they need assistance to fill out a registration form or ballot; the Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned so-called “literacy tests,” ensuring that people who can’t read or write still have a right to vote. The US Department of Justice recently investigated California’s Judiciary for restricting the voting rights of thousands of adults with I/DD who had guardians, because they needed help to fill out a voter registration form.

The second barrier is that family members or others may prevent or dissuade a person from voting because of their disability, on the assumption they will not make an informed choice. There are several reasons why voter education is not a good reason to discourage someone from voting. One, there are resources for educating all voters in language they can understand, such as Disability Rights Oregon’s Easy Voting Guide. Two, working to make choices on the ballot can be important practice for making informed choices about bigger, more personal decisions, like employment, housing, and health. Three, very few voters fill out their ballot having thoroughly researched every single candidate and measure; why must individuals with I/DD be held to a litmus that others aren’t? And fourth, voting on every single issue is not a requirement to vote. For example, a person can choose to vote on President and leave every other race blank, if that’s what they care about.

As a teen approaches adulthood, it’s a good time to think about voting in planning for the future. The time to register is after a person turns 18. In Oregon, you can register at age 17, but you won’t receive any ballots till the first election after your 18th birthday.

In Oregon, if a person aged 17 or older gets a new driver’s license, permit, or ID from the Oregon DMV, they will be eligible for automatic voter registration. This new law means that after going to the DMV, the person will receive a letter saying they will be automatically registered to vote, unless they return the postcard and decline. They can also return the postcard if they want to choose a political party to join. This is a great opportunity to start the conversation about voting with family members.

Of course, any resident who is a US citizen can register even if they don’t have an ID or Driver’s License, using a Social Security number. In Oregon, you can also use a government letter, or other photo ID like a student ID to register using the form at oregonvotes.gov.

Once a voter is registered and receives a ballot, there are several ways to learn about candidates and ballot measures. As previously mentioned, Disability Rights Oregon publishes an Easy Voting Guide for the state of Oregon, designed to be accessible to people with disabilities. It uses large print, high contrast black and white printing, Plain English, and black and white icons that the candidates choose to represent what they will do if elected. It is available in audio, print and at easyvotingguide.org. The League of Women Voters of Oregon also offers a Voters’ Guide available in large print, audio, video, and Spanish.

Reading or writing ability, as previously mentioned, do not need to impact someone’s ability to fill out a ballot. A voter can get assistance from any person of their choosing, except their employer or union, to vote. See the sidebar for tips from the Oregon Self Advocacy Coalition for supporters who are helping someone to vote. A voter also the right to vote privately and independently, so if they do not want support from someone they know, they can request a bipartisan Voter Assistance Team from the county elections office or local voting center to help them read or fill out their ballot.

Assistive technology can also come into play when it comes to voting: voters who can use a computer with access features can fill out their ballot on an Accessible Voting Unit, and in Oregon, online at oregonvotes.org, or in Washington, online at www.sos.wa.gov/elections/voters/. The ballot must still be printed and returned in the signed envelope. Voters can listen to the ballot, people touch the screen, or use or a tool.

No matter what end of the political spectrum you fall on, it’s important to remember that the vote of every eligible adult matters, and voting is empowering. The deadline to register for the November election is October 18 in Oregon. In Washington, the deadline is October 10, or October 31 if registering in person. If you have any questions or concerns about voting rights, you can call Disability Rights Oregon at 800-452-1694 or Disability Rights Washington at 800-562-2702.

How should supports act during the voting process?

Tips from the Oregon Self Advocacy Coalition

  • Before voting, review the Easy Voting Guide or Voters’ Pamphlet with the person you are supporting to vote.
  • Encourage the person to write down or bring up questions during the preparation process.
  • Describe your role: to help someone to vote. You are not there to tell them who or what to vote for. You are there to help the person you are supporting to vote.
  • Help during the voting process by assisting someone with communication or requesting the necessary accommodations.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,