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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

A Right to Vote and A Right to Health for All: Co-liberation as the Only Path Forward

By Maddie Offstein, NCIL Summer Policy Intern

Although the U.S. has formally abolished the Jim Crow laws and poll taxes, many states are ramping up efforts to revisit their laws on voting policies and procedures after the 2020 Presidential election and creating significant barriers for many in participating in future elections. Since start of the new year alone, 18 states have enacted 30 new laws that restrict access to the ballot. Most noteworthy is the successfully passed legislation in Georgia, a state whose presidential election results were decided by a mere 11,779 votes. The law, S.B.202, includes 16 key provisions that either restrict the right to vote for some Georgia residents or transfer power from elections officials to state legislators. The major changes to state voting requirements are as follows: a shortened time period to request absentee ballots, stricter ID requirements for absentee ballots, a significant reduction in the number of ballot drop boxes (with an additional requirement that they are placed inside frequently inaccessible buildings), an almost complete elimination of mobile voting centers, and misdemeanor charges for those who offer food or water to those waiting in long polling lines. These changes will have the impact of curtailing voting access for disabled, low-income, and racially marginalized people – so egregiously that the Justice Department is suing the state on the grounds that Republican lawmakers pushed a bill through the State legislature with an intent to deny Black voters equal access to the ballot. In addition to many civil rights groups, disability rights-focused groups such as The Arc Georgia, Georgia ADAPT, and the Georgia Advocacy Office (GAO) have joined the case and added a complaint that S.B. 202 violates both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This is the first-time disability rights organizations have joined, as plaintiffs, a major voting rights lawsuit.

Also, significant to note are the proposed Texas bills, H.B.3 and S.B.1. The problematic original provisions of these bills include restricting voting on Sundays – with the impact of preventing a longstanding ‘souls to the polls’ tactic that many organizers have used to encourage Black Texans to vote after they attend church – and allowing election officials to overturn the results of elections if there are voter fraud allegations. Some of these restrictions may be walked back as the bills are debated – with one GOP negotiator already claiming that the rule that would disproportionately affect Black American churchgoers was a ‘typo’. However, it is clear that the consequence of these changes would be the suppression of urban Black voters in cities like Houston and the introduction of partisan bias in the validation of elections.

Much of the discussion around legislation from supporters of voting restrictions centers around the issue of photo identification cards as a reasonable requirement for ballot submission. Many supporters of voting restrictions use this argument to obscure other overtly discriminatory provisions (like the ones in the Georgia law) that are also embedded within legislation. So, beyond focusing on the many valid reasons as to why a U.S. citizen may not have an ID – which could include bureaucratic challenges, cost, and transportation issues – it is important to consider who will be most impacted by these laws and how these impacts influence domains outside of the civic sphere (especially one’s health). 

For historical and political reasons, barriers that impede voting and civic participation disproportionately impact people of color in the United States. In consideration with recent (and increasing) reports of voter suppression and evidence to suggest that civic participation and health are connected, it is important for the disability rights community to address voter suppression with an intersectional lens and understand how policies can not only disenfranchise people with disabilities, but also specifically how they negatively impact the health and well-being of multiply-marginalized disabled people and other marginalized groups. Voter suppression operates as a form of racism within a larger racist system to exacerbate existing disparities, ultimately harming the well-being of racially marginalized groups. We exist in a society that is characterized by racism and in which race structures access to both social and economic resources – including civic power – marking voter suppression policies as both symptoms and indicators of a racially hostile climate. By placing limits on a group’s ability to vote and elect representatives who will support policies that shape the structure of education systems, housing, health care, and built environments, inequities across those domains are and will be reproduced. At an interpersonal level, voter suppression directly impacts community resources – i.e., election officials may choose to close polling places so that civic resources are unjustly stratified and certain groups have disparate access based on where they live. This stratification of resources shapes the context in which communities exist, with different stressors and environmental risks having direct consequences on individuals’ health and well-being. On an individual level, voter suppression also defines who is allowed to vote and whose voice matters – studies have shown that the stigmatizing of those who cannot participate in the democratic process and creating feelings of exclusion and physiological distress are detrimental to one’s mental and overall well-being. 

There are many mechanisms by which voter suppression is functioning to create negative health outcomes – which means that some pathways are operating at once and / or throughout time for different individuals. Multiple marginality or discrimination on the basis or sex, race, and disability status may cause some people to experience “double disadvantage” at the polls. The concept of “multiple marginality” is important for all advocates to recognize in understanding the full impact of voter suppression – because similar to how the U.S. is a society that is marked by ableism, racism is also deeply baked into the nation’s systems, structures, and processes. The COVID-19 pandemic provided a unique opportunity for researchers to explore the relationship between racial health disparities and elections. Expanding on research that shows disasters most frequently disproportionately burden communities of color and lower socioeconomic status (SES), a novel COVID-19 Vulnerability Index was developed to show that politicians leveraged existing health disparities to further suppress the voting rights of racial minorities in the 2020 general election. The consequence of which was a further entrenchment of racial inequity in voting. Researchers were able to illustrate that race was a primary driver of COVID-19 vulnerability in two-thirds of Texas counties and that this overlapped with counties that did not make significant safety accommodations for voting in light of the pandemic. Their data also shows that counties in states with a history of racial voter suppression were the counties that did the very least to protect racial minorities in voting – while extending lifelines to other vulnerable populations, including older Americans. Furthermore, they demonstrate that the lack of protections was successful in suppressing the vote – as those in the most at-risk counties (without protections) had the lowest voter turnout rates. 

Conversely, voter turnout for the 2020 elections for people with disabilities actually increased by 5.9 points (relative to 2016) and was slightly higher than the increased turnout of 5.3 points among Americans without disabilities – representing a group of people who benefited from pandemic-induced changes like early voting or mail-in or digital ballot options.  Many transportation issues and polling place accessibility challenges were forgone and turnout across disability categories of hearing, visual, mental / cognitive, and physical impairments increased. Significant challenges remained though, particularly for in-person voting – as there were fewer polling places and accessibility barriers coupled with long lines at the voting sites that did open. Ease of access to the polls has not historically been the case for the disability community; and recently proposed GOP bills further threaten the ability of Americans with disabilities to participate in the democratic process – with paper ballot requirements (that are wholly inaccessible for print disabled people) and requirements to send medical documentation of disability status in order to receive a mail-in ballot. The current political climate puts the civil rights of communities of color and those with disabilities in jeopardy. With people falling into both categories and having identities that are not singular / expand beyond both groups, fighting these discriminatory pieces of legislation as threats to both racial and disability justice has to be the path forward.

Focusing solely on discrimination at the ballot box (and the resulting voter suppression) will be inadequate. The underlying racism and ableism that is driving voter discrimination must be addressed on a larger scale. Because of stigma’s pervasiveness and disruption of many areas of life – including resources, social relationships, and coping behaviors – different processes mediate a desire to keep stigmatized people down and stigma-related outcomes, such as exclusion, discrimination, segregation, stress, and diminished socioeconomic status. Initiatives to address the negative impacts of voter suppression must occur in parallel with widespread efforts to eradicate racism from all personal, interpersonal, and structural levels of society in order for racial health inequities to be reduced. If the root causes (racism and ableism) are not addressed, then the negative health-related outcomes caused by voter suppression will continue to persist even if one (or more) of the mechanisms are eliminated. Since many previous legal challenges to these restrictive voting laws have been unsuccessful and states are becoming sources of voting inequities (rather than solutions), legislative action is needed at the federal level to prevent the hampering of the civic rights of many Americans. One such response could be a reinvigoration or strengthening of the historic Voting Rights Act. Other responses could include the passing of new legislation such as the For the People Act or the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act

To close, many politicians dramatically and rhetorically describe the choice of who to vote for as one of ‘life or death’. This is literally true as voter suppression impacts health via two primary mechanisms. First, voting possesses “symbolic significance” that may impact health because the right to vote represents one’s social standing and provides an individual both with dignity and self-confidence. Second, the right to participate in the democratic process also allows individuals to influence the policies and laws that will directly impact their well-being and influence well-established social determinants of health – like education, housing, and access to health care. To ensure that all people have these rights, federal-level efforts are necessary to protect equal access to the polls. In Georgia, by joining AME Church v. Kemp, disability rights organizations are continuing a long-standing partnership with civil rights groups to not only ensure that Georgia legislators are unsuccessful in discriminating against people with disabilities – but that Black voters, Latinx voters, other voters of color, new citizens, elderly voters, and student voters are all able to participate in democracy. Expanding access to the ballot for all must be an integral part the Independent Living Movement’s pursuit of co-liberation as a guiding principle in 2021 and beyond.

If interested in learning and engaging more around this topic, please consider joining the NCIL Voting Rights Subcommittee via this form.