Some of the Best and Worst News You’ve Probably Never Heard.
As a child, for some obscure reason, the only two structures in our neighborhood that were suitable as a polling place were the local Jewish synagogue and our garage. I thought the synagogue, grand as it was, was certainly appropriate but I couldn’t help but think Jefferson and Franklin would have been more than a little embarrassed by the use of our garage. Nonetheless, every other election, my brothers and I had to ensure it was spotlessly clean so that all of our neighbors could spend the day trooping up and down our driveway casting their votes.
What I remember most about those days (other than we children were prohibited from campaigning for our parent’s favorite candidates) is the complete absence of any disabled voters. Some one might have sneaked in when we were doing something else, but, if they did, they were very rare.
Absentee voting, at least as I remember it, was primarily promoted for people in the military and anyone who would be out of town on election day.
The good news that I reference in the title to this post is that, in the past three decades, the country has made great strides in opening up voting to the nation’s millions of disabled voters. This hasn’t always been easy; there have been hiccups here and there.
Sometimes progress has taken the form of spending money; more often, it has taken the form of changing policies to be more welcoming. On occasion, these changes have been visible; more often, they have gone on behind the scene.
The net effect has been to make it possible for millions of more Americans to vote. In consequence, they have.
This is something both political parties can be proud of. This has not, I repeat not, been a partisan triumph. There have been times and places when one party has been more supportive than the other, but, at the end of the day, surveys indicate that disabled voters are pretty much a cross-section of the country. That is, neither party especially benefits or is harmed by having a lot of disabled people vote.
While this has been a story that has received virtually no press attention, it is one the entire country – liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican – can take pride in.
The bad news is that this is about to change.
Club VIBES and the Freedom to Fly blog have, and will continue to be, a politics-free zone. That’s not going to change with this post. But whether you think the current efforts of some state legislators are efforts at voter suppression or much-needed prevention of election fraud, they will, almost certainly, invoke the law of unintended consequences and discourage or make it far more difficult for large numbers of disabled Americans to vote.
Let me site just a couple of examples as they affect blind and visually-impaired voters. I should preface by saying that, if you’re sighted, these may sound trivial, but, I promise, they’re not. They have the potential to impact a lot of people.
1. Legal accommodations will be seen as fraud. When I first moved to Tennessee and tried to vote, I was legally blind and, while my vision hadn’t deteriorated to the point that I needed to use a cane, I was going to need assistance to read the print on the voting machine.
When I explained this to the otherwise accommodating election officials, I was initially met with bewilderment, then skepticism, and finally outright resistance. They were polite Southern ladies, but they were not to be taken as fools. Ever so tactfully, they let it be known that they thought I was faking and, not to put too fine a point on it, was lying. After all, I wasn’t wearing dark glasses, didn’t have a cane, and didn’t look or act like Stevie Wonder.
After a lengthy explanation, during which all other activity in the polling station stopped and focused on me, I was able to convince the nice ladies that I wasn’t masquerading and was allowed to vote. To satisfy the election law at the time, that meant squeezing into the booth with an election official as well as representatives of both the Republican and Democratic Parties, an experience that almost required an R-rating. If all this weren’t enough, the election official took it upon herself to announce to her two colleagues in a voice reminiscent of a megaphone whom I was voting for every time she pulled the lever.
I promised myself that afternoon that I would never put myself through that again and, almost fifty years later, have never voted in-person again.
This said, if I received this much resistance to a simple request for accommodation at a time of partisan civility, I can’t help wonder how a similar request would be dealt with in today’s toxic partisan atmosphere with election officials and poll watchers primed to expect fraudulent behavior. Anyone who has ever taken a freshman psychology course knows that, when people anticipate seeing a particular behavior, they’re far more likely to think they see it, whether it’s really there or not.
A blind or visually-impaired voter will inevitably be seeking assistance in ways that look suspicious to someone who is predisposed to look for things out of the ordinary.
And, as I’ve written here on many previous occasions, believe me, the average election official and partisan poll watcher isn’t going to have a clue what will be normal behavior for a visually-impaired voter.
2. Aggressive signature matching will almost certainly throw out a good number of qualified votes. As someone who lived in Chicago in the hey day of Mayor Richard Daily’s political machine when the expression “vote early, vote often” wasn’t a joke but a command, I can appreciate the concern to ensure that signatures on absentee votes square with those on file with the election commission.
While jumping to the conclusion that all signatures that don’t match must be fraudulent has a superficial logic, it is just factually wrong.
For example, for reasons I don’t pretend to understand, when people lose the ability to see their own handwriting, over time, they also lose the ability to write their signature in a consistent manner. Now, for most purposes in life, my signatures are generally close, but not exact. The teller at my local bank, who has seen it dozens of times, even challenged it once.
But a number of state legislatures have made it clear that from now on election officials and partisan poll watchers are expected to care more than ever before that signatures are the same as those that are on file with election authorities.
No matter how hard I, and tens of thousands of other blind and visually-impaired people, try, our signatures are likely to look suspicious to any official predisposed to look for fraudulent activity. And this doesn’t count all of the voters who have muscular and neurological problems signing their names as well.
3. Requiring assistance of family members for absentee voting will discourage electoral participation. Perhaps the silliest piece of legislation is the requirement that would mandate that only family members and legal guardians could assist disabled voters filing absentee votes.
The sponsor of this Wisconsin piece of nonsense acknowledges that, as long as a disabled voter in Milwaukee had a sibling in the other end of the State, she could not use a neighbor to assist her in completing her ballot.
Such legislation assumes that disabled people always have good relations with their families and that their family members will be honest in helping them in completing their ballots. Of course, crooks have relatives too.
When I last checked, the Wisconsin Legislature was expected to pass this into law. Similar legislation has already been passed in several other states in the past year.
No one is in favor of fraud. The hope is that these new election laws will be implemented with good sense and moderation. My concern is that, expecting to see deception and fraud and ignorant about blindness and visual impairment, to say nothing about disability in general, election officials and partisan poll watchers will see dishonesty and deception instead of citizens attempting to go out of their way to exercise their constitutional rights.