Disability Rights Florida’s Remarks at 7/23/19 Florida Advisory Committee of the United States Commission on Civil Rights Public Hearing on Voter Suppression and Voter Disenfranchisement
Thursday, July 25, 2019
Below are the comments submitted by Disability Rights Florida at the Florida Advisory Committee of the United States Commission on Civil Rights Public Hearing on Voter Suppression and Voter Disenfranchisement on July 23, 2019. The Committee will review the implementation of the 2018 constitutional measure to end the automatic disenfranchisement of most felons in the state and the impediments to voting or the rejection of ballot issues throughout Florida.
Your comments are also welcome. Written testimony may be emailed to Carolyn Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org, or submitted to the Regional Programs Unit via fax at 312-353-8324 or by mail to 230 S. Dearborn, Suite 2120, Chicago, IL 60604 by August 22, 2019.
Good afternoon. My name is Tony DePalma, Public Policy Director for Disability Rights Florida, the state’s federally-mandated Protection and Advocacy system organized for the benefit of all Floridians with all disabilities. Our organization maintains funding and authority across nine federal grants, including a voting access grant established within the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA).
Out of respect for the space that I know the Chair of the Advisory Committee is graciously attempting to guarantee for all members of the public to share their own perspectives and experiences today, I will keep my remarks brief. Out of respect for the nearly five million individuals with disabilities in the state, I must call attention to the noticeable absence of disability representation on today’s panels.
As has historically been the case with most if not all civil rights gains in our nation, the struggle to secure equitable access to the polls for persons with disabilities within – and often despite – our elections laws and voting systems has typically lagged well behind similar advancements in other spheres. Although reported turnout of voters with disabilities surged by 8.5 points in last year’s midterm cycle, a stubborn turnout gap of between 4 to 7 points nonetheless persists in relation to turnout rates of nondisabled voters. In recent elections, this turnout gap can be translated into the staggering reality that between 2 to 3 million additional votes would be cast nationwide if voters with disabilities voted at the same rate as their nondisabled peers.
Several culprits have been proposed to account for this turnout gap, but unlike other policies or practices that have historically had the effect of disenfranchising minority voting blocs, the factors combining to diminish the voting capacities of the disability community do not necessarily appear rooted in nefarious or even conscientious efforts to suppress votes. Instead, as is regularly the case with many issues affecting persons with disabilities, it is often an underlying failure or unwillingness to consider the unique needs of this community or to fully acclimate to the realities of voting with a disability that disenfranchises.
Principal among these factors are inaccessible poll sites, voting equipment and related processes. The most recent data from the U.S. Government Accountability Office indicates that more than 60% of poll sites sampled during early in-person voting and on Election Day 2016 had one or more potential impediments affecting voters with disabilities – the most common impediments noted were steep ramps located outside buildings, lack of signs indicating accessible paths, and poor parking or path surfaces.
Moreover, although the Help America Vote Act has mandated the presence of at least one accessible voting machine at each poll site since 2002, poll workers are often unaware of how to operate such equipment effectively to meet the varied needs of voters with disabilities. A similar refrain often echoed anecdotally by disabled voters centers upon the need for training efforts focused on educating poll workers to better understand the appropriate manner in which to respectfully interact with voters with disabilities. Of course, this dynamic could be alleviated through active cultivation of poll workers with disabilities at all levels of state and federal elections.
However, instead of a sincere refocusing on the constitutional voting guarantees articulated in the federal Americans with Disabilities and Help America Vote Acts, perhaps the most troubling development during the run-up to the midterms was the attempted weaponization of these requirements against other marginalized communities of color and indigenous populations. These well-publicized bids to inequitably target inaccessible poll sites for closure within these communities were made despite ample opportunity to remedy access violations between election cycles in a manner consistent with federal ADA access requirements that have remained largely unchanged for nearly three decades since their passage.
In fact, today’s discussion illuminates a central tension undergirding the current election reform landscape nationwide – the tendency for election security efforts to dominate headlines and headspace in a fashion that deflects from the simultaneous need for a meaningful review of elections access investments and improvements. In the months preceding the 2018 midterms, Florida received nearly $20M in federal HAVA funds – the first such appropriation in nearly a decade. Nearly 90% of this funding was allocated to enhance election security, while less than $2M was earmarked to establish an online grant program for county supervisors to improve voting accessibility. Frustratingly, it has been reported recently that Florida reverted nearly as much of this total appropriation due to its failure to timely spend funds as it had initially set aside for accessibility improvements.
In recent years, the state has had several occasions to review its signature verification and related curing provisions for vote-by-mail and provisional balloting but has seemingly elected to do so largely without regard to how these mechanisms disparately affect voters with disabilities. This is an especially important consideration where accessibility impediments – even merely perceived ones – preclude or disincentivize in-person voting by voters with disabilities, including a sizeable portion of the state’s senior population. Voters with degenerative diseases or disabilities with periodic symptoms, voters with vision loss and related impairments, and voters with disabilities affecting fine motor skill and coordination are all asked to believe in the sanctity and operation of these provisions every time they affix a signature to their ballot. Consequently, at a minimum, the state must approach its outreach and education efforts regarding signature verification and cure requirements to these voting populations in earnest to prevent inadvertent disenfranchisement.
Similarly, although confusing or stringent voter ID laws often are understood to have suppressive effects on voter turnout either by design or effect (a fact that is especially true following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down key portions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in its Shelby County v. Holder decision) voter ID laws uniquely affect disability populations for one overarching reason – in general, persons with disabilities are less likely to have identification for several justifiable reasons. Persons with disabilities are less likely to drive and therefore possess driver’s licenses, are less likely to be employed in government sectors and therefore possess government identification and are less likely to be involved with systems of higher education and therefore possess college or university identification. Barriers to travel and otherwise inaccessible avenues of transportation present persons with disabilities with less opportunity to obtain a passport. Moreover, the complexities often involved in documenting and supporting an application for identification can prove time consuming and cost prohibitive, especially for the one-in-three persons with disabilities estimated to live in poverty (often for reasons related to benefits management and income & asset thresholds).
Even the manner in which the legislature has elected to implement Amendment 4 earlier this spring has disenfranchising consequences for disability populations, as there is a vast overrepresentation of inmates and prisoners with disabilities in our jails and prisons. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that nearly one-third of state-and-federal prisoners and roughly 40% of jail inmates have a disability. Startingly, the prevalence of disability among female jail inmates is reported to be just shy of 50%. Given that the poverty rate for working-age people with disabilities is nearly two-and-a-half times higher than that for people without disabilities, this population is statistically less-likely to be able to meet the financial obligations of court costs and restitution in order to have their voting rights restored upon release.
Finally, the most acutely avoidable aspect of disability voting disenfranchisement is the failure of candidates and campaigns to engage directly with voters across the state’s disability communities on issues of importance to those populations. The issues confronting Floridians with disabilities are immense and varied – expanding affordable, accessible housing capacities; ensuring non-discriminatory public transportation and paratransit options; incorporating disability considerations within broader emergency planning, preparation and response systems; the continued trajectory from institutional and other residential settings that isolate to true community integration; safeguarding educational opportunities; promoting competitive integrated employment outcomes. It is a grave miscalculation for the state’s political class to become or remain unresponsive to these issues. It is a self-perpetuating brand of disenfranchisement that occurs when voters with disabilities do not fundamentally sense either effect or meaning in their voting activities and enterprises.
To close, I would once again like to express my gratitude and appreciation to the Chair of the Advisory Committee for ensuring that the state reviews these issues discerningly and with the conviction necessary to champion election reform that challenges both intentional and inadvertent suppressive forces where they are found to exist. Representation and participation are dual foundational pillars in our nation’s democratic institutions that should be reviewed, recalibrated and respected no matter the cost or calculation, and no matter the difficulty involved. Disability Rights Florida will submit these and any additional comments within the prescribed comment period and looks forward to future opportunities to engage in these discussions with other stakeholders. Thank you.
Director of Public Policy
Disability Rights Florida
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