On June 27, Buzzfeed released a video starring President Obama on the importance and ease of voter registration. The comedic video, "5 Things That Are Harder Than Registering to Vote," features the President doing things like untangling earbuds and listing the characters who have been killed on Game of Thrones, tasks that are seemingly harder to do than registering to vote.
While the video is a very amusing PSA, there's just one problem: for many of the millions of Americans with disabilities of voting age, registering to vote really isn't that easy.
Not only are many polling locations inaccessible on voting day, but even registering to vote is rendered difficult or impossible due to issues such as inaccessible voter registration websites.
What can we do to secure the basic right to vote for millions of Americans with disabilities? This year, National Disability Voter Registration Week is scheduled for July 11 to 15, and this week gives us an opportunity to learn about the challenges of voting inaccessibility, promote disabled voter awareness, and mobilize the disability community to register to vote!
The Disability Demographic and Voting: The Numbers
Despite the fact that the media rarely mention us when it comes to voting, the disability demographic is very large. The 2010 Census found that there are 56.7 million Americans with disabilities in the United States, which is close to 20 percent of the population. 33.7 million of those people are eligible to vote.
For comparison, there are about 36 million citizens of Canada. That's right: there are almost as many disabled people in the United States who are eligible to vote as there are citizens in the entire country of Canada.
Now we know that the amount of eligible voters doesn't nearly equal the amount of actual voters, but a significant number of people with disabilities do show up to the polls. In 2012, 15.6 million Americans with disabilities voted in the November election. As I have stated in the past, this is about 4.5 times the discrepancy in votes between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.
Although a lot of Americans with disabilities show up to the polls, the fact is that a significant number are being blocked from exercising their right to vote by barriers that Americans without disabilities do not face, including inaccessibility of polling places, poll workers who are not trained on how to use accessible equipment at the polls, and even inaccessible voter registration.
Inaccessibility of Online Voter Registration: The Facts
Online voter registration is important. It makes registering to vote or updating your registration as simple as a few clicks of a button, and eliminates common issues with hard copy registration, such as illegible handwriting, that cause problems at the polls. However, online voter registration remains shockingly inaccessible. According to a 2015 report by the ACLU on online voter registration websites, only one state, California, has a fully accessible voter registration website. Other states do not meet all of the accessibility requirements, and some don't even meet basic accessibility standards.
Common inaccessibility issues include:
- Inaccessible forms: if the online registration forms are not labeled and coded correctly, people who have visual disabilities or other disabilities dependent on screen reader technology are not able to determine which form fields should contain which information, such as their names and addresses.
- Lack of alternate text: alternate text, or "alt text," are text tags that are used to provide descriptions of the content of images. Without this information, individuals dependent on screen reader technology cannot interpret an image.
- Poor design and navigation issues: when information on a page is not labeled properly, users of screen readers may not know how to navigate between pages. Additionally, issues such as low contrast between text and backgrounds, or small text that cannot be adjusted, can prevent people from being able to properly register.
Individuals who rely on screen readers are not the only people who are affected by the inaccessibility of voter registration websites. Issues such as system timeouts may boot users with cognitive disabilities out of the system before they can register, and the lack of keyboard-only navigation could significantly complicate the ability of someone with a physical disability such as Parkinson's Disease from being able to click into fields and on buttons.
Why Should You Care?
Our right to vote is one of the most fundamentally important ways that we can participate in and contribute to the democratic process. For Americans with disabilities, there are significant issues that affect our community that need to be addressed by the politicians we elect. The below video from Huffington Post and the #CripTheVote campaign is just the tip of the iceberg of the complicated issues that affect millions of us: housing, education, Social Security, health insurance, employment, and transportation are just a few of the issues that profoundly affect disabled Americans. By voting, we can weigh in on these issues and have an impact by choosing lawmakers that represent our interest. We deserve this ability and need this ability as much as any other American.
What Can We Do?
In honor of this year's National Disability Voter Registration Week, I petitioned my City Council for an official proclamation recognizing the importance of this week. This is just one of the many small steps we can take individually to inform on and break down the barriers that prevent millions of our fellow citizens from being able to exercise their right to vote. So, in honor of National Disability Voter Registration week, here are a few ideas on how you can contribute:
- Educate yourself. Visit resources such as the REV Up Campaign or the National Council on Independent Living's Voting Rights Subcommittee for more information on National Disability Voter Registration Week and disability voting rights.
- Register to Vote. Make sure that you are registered to vote and that your registration is updated, and encourage your family and friends to register to vote as well.
- Learn about inaccessibility. Did you know that there are free online tools that can evaluate the accessibility of a website? When you have time, use the Web Accessibility Evaluation Tool or Functional Accessibility Evaluator 2.0 on your state's voter registration page. Experimenting with these tools can help you learn about the problems on your state's voter registration page that may prevent fellow citizens with disabilities from voting.
- Get a proclamation. Contact your city council and urge them to issue a proclamation recognizing National Disability Voter Registration Week. You can see sample proclamation language here.