Disabled Voters Were Evenly Split in 2016. Now the GOP Is Pushing Them Away
- Lawmakers seek to curb early, mail-in and curbside voting
- Measures spark backlash among voters with disabilities
By Ryan Teague Beckwith
Bloomberg News, July 12, 2023
Republican efforts to restrict voting have sparked a backlash among people with disabilities, hurting the party’s appeal to a key group of swing voters.
Disability rights advocates say new laws to reduce early in-person voting, restrict vote-by-mail and ban curbside voting — in response to Donald Trump’s baseless claims of widespread fraud — have angered voters with disabilities.
“You are going to hear from us,” said Vincenzo Piscopo, president of the United Spinal Association, which advocates for people with spinal injuries.
Disabled voters make up a sizable, diverse group, with nearly 16 million casting ballots in the 2022 midterms, according to a US Election Assistance Commission report released Wednesday.
Voters with disabilities were evenly split between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 but swung hard against the former president four years later amid concerns about his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which was especially threatening to those with pre-existing health problems.
A poll from Greenberg Research just before Election Day in 2020 showed voters with disabilities in battleground states backed Biden over Trump, 60–35%. The same survey showed 62% of voters with disabilities disapproved of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak — 10 points higher than voters without disabilities.
And the wave of Republican-spearheaded voter restrictions passed since 2020 has left voters with disabilities “really angry,” said Dom Kelly, president and CEO of the nonpartisan advocacy group New Disabled South.
“This is an issue that will polarize our community and push us toward the folks who are going to make it easier for us to vote,” Kelly said.
Republican-led states have reduced early voting hours popular with blind voters who need assistance; restricted who can return a ballot and limited drop boxes, changes that make it harder for voters with mobility issues; and tightened signature requirements, creating problems for those with limited fine motor skills.
“I don’t think these laws were necessarily targeted at people with disabilities, but they have an outsized impact on us,” said Brian Dimmick, senior staff attorney for disability rights with the ACLU.
In Wisconsin, Republican officials have sought to restrict who can assist voters living in long-term care facilities with their ballots. Alabama and Texas banned curbside voting popular with those who have trouble walking or use wheelchairs.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott vetoed a bill in June that would have made it easier for people with disabilities to vote by mail. Advocates say they were particularly angry about that decision, since Abbott uses a wheelchair and his own advisory panel backed the measure.
In a veto statement, Abbott said bill’s intent was “laudable” but that it was overly broad, saying he would help to rework it.
Kathy Bernier, a former Republican state senator in Wisconsin, said that she worked closely with disability rights advocates on a bill that sought to clarify state law around voters confined to their homes amid concerns the provision was being abused during the pandemic.
“It’s like a disabled parking space,” Bernier said. “You want to make sure it’s only used by the disabled.”
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said her surveys have found that when new voting limits were described as making it harder for people with disabilities, more than 80% of likely voters opposed them.
“People were quite angry when they were told that this restriction or that restriction would make it harder for seniors, veterans or people with disabilities to vote,” she said. “It’s really operating less at a policy level than a values level.”
Beyond the voting laws, Republican presidential candidates have so far done little outreach to the disabled community.
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, the retired founder of RespectAbility, a nonpartisan advocacy group, noted that none of the candidates has put forward a disability policy platform.
She said they’re also failing to take simple steps, such as posting alt text that describes photos on their campaign sites and social media feeds or adding captions and hiring sign language interpreters for live events.
“Even if they had the best message, they’re going to lose votes because people can’t receive it,” she said.
© Bloomberg News, 2023.