Working to Close the Gap: New Data to Help Voters with Disabilities and Election Officials
Jul 25, 2019
Professors Dr. Lisa Schur and Dr. Doug Kruse of Rutgers University recently issued their report “Disability and Turnout in the 2018 Elections.” I caught up with them to discuss some of their findings and how the report can assist voters with disabilities and election officials in the 2020 presidential election.
As the EAC celebrates the 29th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), it seems only fitting that we feature these two distinguished individuals on the important topic of empowering voters with disabilities in our representative democracy. I asked Dr. Lisa Schur and Dr. Doug Kruse a series of questions on this topic. Their responses and the questions are below.
EAC: Lisa and Doug, please tell us about your recent report entitled “Disability and Turnout in the 2018 Elections.” How do you believe the insights in this report can be used to help voters with disabilities and the election officials who serve them?
Response: We found that people with disabilities clearly participated in the surge in voter turnout in 2018. Their turnout increased 8.5 percentage points over the prior midterm election in 2014. This indicates that people with disabilities are an important part of the electorate and election officials should be prepared for a large number of people with disabilities in the 2020 elections.
EAC: Lisa, the report shows that 24.5 million voters in the 2018 elections had a disability or lived with someone with a disability. This is equal to 20% of all voters in the midterms. Can you tell us more about these statistics and your thoughts on future trends in this area?
Response: The disability community includes not only people with disabilities themselves, but also their family members, and more broadly their friends and co-workers. The broadest definition of disability community includes over half of the electorate. So obviously many people are affected and engaged with disability issues.
EAC: Doug, your report shows 29% of voters with disabilities cast their ballot by mail in the 2018 elections. This is nine points higher than the general population. Do you have suggestions for election officials as they work to meet the absentee ballot needs of voters with disabilities?
Response: Yes, some people with disabilities find it easier and more convenient to vote by mail. That being said, mail ballots should not be the only option for people with disabilities. Our previous national survey work found that a majority of people with disabilities said they would prefer to vote in person at a polling place. If they do vote by mail, we have found that turnout is increased by “no-excuse” permanent mail ballots, which don’t carry the stigma of having to identify oneself as having a disability.
EAC: Lisa, July 26 marks the 29th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Based on your research into the ADA, what more needs to be done to meet the promise of equal rights and access for Americans with disabilities?
Response: The ADA has increased inclusion in many areas of life for people with disabilities. However, we continue to see large gaps in several areas, especially employment and political participation. These gaps are related, as we find that employed people with disabilities are just as likely as employed people without disabilities to vote, whereas there is a large voter turnout gap among the non-employed. The 2008 ADA Amendments Act was critical in restoring the original promise of the ADA, in particular by ensuring that the definition of disability be interpreted broadly so that more people are covered. In line with the law, judges and election officials should use an expansive definition to accommodate people with a broad variety of impairments to encourage full political participation.
EAC: Doug, the 2018 midterms saw a notable surge in turnout amongst voters with disabilities. This is a positive development for policymakers, election officials, and the disability community. Do you have any early indications of whether this progress will continue in the 2020 presidential elections? Is this generally a nonpartisan trend?
Response: These 2018 results make it very likely that people with disabilities will continue to be a substantial part of the electorate in 2020. As we did in 2016, we’ll provide projections early in 2020 of the size of the electorate with disabilities, plus the size of the electorate who live in disability households where at least one person has a disability. Family members are often very motivated by disability issues. Regarding partisanship, the evidence generally indicates that the partisan affiliation of people with disabilities mirrors that of the general electorate, so increasing the turnout of people with disabilities should be seen as a good nonpartisan move for democracy.
EAC: Lisa and Doug, your recent report received national coverage and will help officials across the U.S. What are your plans for analyzing the disability turnout in the 2020 elections and beyond?
Response: We look forward to tracking the turnout of people with disabilities! We will continue to analyze any available data, and make our results useful for politicians and election officials to ensure access of people with disabilities to the political system. True democracy requires equal access by all citizens.
Thank you to Lisa and Doug for their tremendous research efforts and leadership in helping people with disabilities. With the 2020 federal elections around the corner, the disability community is mobilizing to improve voting access and increase registration and participation of voters with access needs. This research is an invaluable resource as election officials seek to harness this energy and serve voters with disabilities across America.
We look forward to future reports and contributions from this dynamic team of outstanding researchers.