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Breaking Ground 98 - Toward Closing the Disability Voting Gap

by Disability Rights Tennessee Staff

Voting is a fundamental right for American citizens, and one of the most basic ways we can engage with our community. At the end of an election, each vote counts the same, whether a voter has a disability or not. At Disability Rights Tennessee, we are devoted to ensuring every Tennessean has access to vote, regardless of their ability.

Identifying barriers

During the 2016 election, Tennessee ranked 49th in the nation in voter participation among people with disabilities. Only 47.1% of eligible voters cast a ballot, according to a Rutgers University study. That same study found there was an 8% gap in voting participation between people with and without disabilities, meaning that voters without disabilities voted 8% more than voters with disabilities. This is called the disability voter gap and is a factor across the country.

One explanation for the gap is the presence of accessibility barriers at poll sites. These barriers range from not being able to physically access a polling place to not having trained poll workers who can assist voters with disabilities. According to a 2012 Rutgers University study, 30% of voters with disabilities nationally reported difficulty with voting, while only 8% of voters without disabilities reported difficulty. A Government Accountability Office study surveyed 178 poll sites for accessibility in 2016 and found that 60% had one or more potential barriers to voting. The GAO report findings are generally consistent with what we observe.

Disability Rights Tennessee (DRT) works with voters, county election officials, and the state election commission to ensure that voters have access to voting in Tennessee. One of our most important activities is surveying poll sites across the state during active statewide elections. In 2018, staff surveyed more than 300 poll sites across Tennessee. The data collected from survey results are shared with each county in an effort to remedy barriers. We also take calls from voters who experience problems voting on Election Day and work with their county election officials to resolve issues.

Always improving

As voting trends change, so do the ways we address them. At DRT, we are constantly improving our work to get a clearer picture of the barriers that voters with disabilities face across Tennessee. DRT was recently awarded a grant from the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities and has purchased sophisticated data analytics software that will allow us to better perform poll-site accessibility surveys and track poll sites over time. This software will also allow us to run reports to help identify trends or common problems. We hope to use this data-driven approach to improve the training of poll workers and to work with county and state election officials to reduce barriers to voting for people across Tennessee. Eventually, we hope to become a national leader in understanding the barriers that exist for voters with disabilities. We piloted the new software during Nashville’s mayoral election in August 2019.

Through the same grant from the Council, we are also seeking to address gaps in voter registration by developing resources to help Tennesseans with disabilities get registered to vote. Voter registration is another area where significant gaps exist between people with and without disabilities. The Rutgers University study identified that people with disabilities are registered to vote at about the same rate as people without disabilities. However, the way they register, and the reasons that some don’t register, are very different. The study found that people with disabilities make a special trip to a voter registration office to make sure that they have the opportunity to vote, in contrast to many voters without disabilities who register at the DMV when they get their license. We hope that these new tools will help close registration gaps by providing increased voter registration opportunities for people with disabilities in their own communities.  

Disability Rights Tennessee is dedicated to ensuring that voters with disabilities have access to vote in Tennessee and are committed to responding to the changing needs of voters. If you have experienced an issue while voting in Tennessee, please contact us at 1-800-342-1660.