(This story if from NorthJersey.com in the United States)
Marie Carina desperately wants to exercise her right to vote, but every November, she faces barriers.
Just navigating to the polls is difficult for Carina, who is disabled and relies on a wheelchair. “The last time, it took me a while to find the accessible route,” she said. “I had trouble figuring out where to go.”
Carina, who lives in Ocean County, is not alone. Many New Jersey residents feel neglected on Election Day. But advocates insist that the only way to reverse that phenomenon is for more disabled people to get out and vote.
Overall voter turnout in the November 2016 election for people with disabilities was 55.9 percent, about six percentage points lower than the rest of the population, which was 62.2 percent, according to a report released by the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations. However, the 16 million disabled people who voted represented a marked increase from the 14.7 million in 2008.
A national effort called the REV UP (Register! Educate! Vote! Use Your Power!) Campaign strives to transform voters with disabilities into a powerful voting bloc. Communities throughout the state and country participated in the initiative. The concept, launched last year, aims to increase political might while engaging candidates on disability issues.
“The physical act of voting is gratifying, and a lot of people want to do that in person,” said Anne Burton Walsh, president of the Ridgewood chapter of the League of Women Voters, which ran several registration drives for people with disabilities leading up to New Jersey’s Oct. 17 deadline.
“We had a dad and his 21-year-old daughter in a wheelchair who was so excited to be able to register to vote,” Walsh said, adding that the group plans to continue its campaign next spring.
Kevin Casey, executive director of the New Jersey Council on Developmental Disabilities, said people with disabilities must be educated and heard in the voting booth. In addition, he said, they have to know where their elected leaders stand when it comes to Medicaid. “That funds 75 percent of the services for people with disabilities. If it gets cut, that will impact their services.”
In recent months, disabled individuals have played a prominent role in protests against cuts to the Affordable Care Act, staging “die-ins” on Capitol Hill that have resulted in dozens of arrests.
The next challenge for the disabled community is the 2018 budget plan approved by the Republican majority in the Senate last week, which calls for $1 trillion in Medicaid cuts over the next 10 years.
With the stakes high, figures show that accessibility has been an issue. A 2008 study by the federal Government Accountability Office found that 45.3 percent of polling places nationwide had a system that could pose impediments to voters with disabilities. The picture looks brighter in North Jersey.
Patricia DiCostanzo, Bergen County’s Superintendent of Elections, said all polling places in the county are barrier-free.
“We’ve done outreach to make sure they are registered and aware of how to vote and how to use the machines,” she said, adding that the polls have machines that can drop down for a wheelchair and there’s a special apparatus for someone who is sight-impaired.
She has also created and distributed instructional CDs designed to teach people what to do in the voting booth. But just in case, she can also have a troubleshooter meet people at the polls, she said.
According to Board of Elections office in Passaic County, all the polling places there are 100 percent accessible. In Morris County, all polling sites meet Americans with Disability Act standards, said Dale Kramer, administrator for the county’s Board of Elections. Each year, she said, the county inspects all polling sites, ramps and facilities and must certify each to the state.
Christopher Gagliardi, 36, of Englewood, who works part-time at Starbucks, says there’s a need to teach people with disabilities about how to vote, as well as assuring their right to vote.
“People with special needs need to know about all the issues affecting them. Some of them feel their voice doesn’t matter. I want them to understand that their voice one hundred percent matters,” Gagliardi said firmly. “And with the Americans With Disabilities Act being under attack now, and with the guy we have now as president, I am all the more concerned.”
Although federal law requires that voting facilities be ADA-compliant, there are still many reports of barriers at the polls.
“It’s required that every polling place have at least one accessible polling machine, but in many states the machines tend to be outdated and sometimes the poll workers are not trained in how to use it,” said Sarah Blahovec of the National Council on Independent Living, based in Washington, D.C.
In addition, the requirement for a voter ID in some states affects those with disabilities, because it’s more difficult for people with disabilities to get a valid voter ID, Blahovec said. “You have people who can’t drive due to vision impairment or another impairment, so they get turned away at the polls.”
Lisa Tester, 52, of Paramus, who uses a walker, said she has had difficulty getting through the door of her polling place. “One time, they put up a ramp but it wasn’t complete. There was no hand railing, and that was the only entrance.” In addition, she said, the doors are often too heavy for her to open.
Disability Rights NJ, based in Trenton, runs a hotline every Election Day that voters call call if they encounter problems at the polls, said Mary Ciccone, managing attorney with the non-profit group. Last year, the hotline received 20 calls on Election Day, inquiring about accessibility, signage and mail-in ballots. There were also complaints about the audio component of some voting machines.
Doug Bunza of Ridgewood, who has learning disabilities, says voting is important to him because “I get to get my opinion across.” The 23-year-old voted in several elections but still needs assistance in the voting booth. “It’s hard to figure which square to push,” he admitted. “I need someone in there to help me.”
His mother, Ines Bunza, said the workers at her polling place know her and allow her to accompany Doug into the booth. Under state law, disabled voters can have help casting a ballot. “I heard it’s against the law in some places to go into the polls with someone else,” she said. “He could never do this on his own. Going into the voting booth is extremely intimidating for him.”
Gagliardi said education is key. Disabled voters need to know their rights when it comes to elections, and then, he said, “Vote like your life depended on it.”