A Brief History of Voting Rights for People with Disabilities

Like other citizens, people with disabilities have the right to vote. The idea that an observer at the polls can determine that a voter with disabilities lacks the capacity to vote based on the voter’s appearance or some superficial interaction with the voter is based on outmoded stereotypes to believe unfairly that all people or things with a particular characteristic are the same and prejudices concerning disability.  Today, federal statutes protect the right of people with disabilities to vote by prohibiting discrimination and creating legal requirements for polling places  to remove other obstacles to voting.

It took a long time for the federal protections that we have today to be created. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 granted voters with disabilities the affirmative right a right specifically laid out in the Constitution to have necessary assistance in voting from a person of the voter’s choice.

Legislative Action

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was another push for equal rights for people with disabilities. After it was enacted, the federal government did not create effective regulations for all of the parts of the Act, especially section 504 — a section focused on civil rights and providing the right types of accessibility and assistance to people with disabilities. A number of protests were held to push for enforcement of section 504. In San Francisco, a large group of disability rights activists from all types of organizations held a sit-in that lasted for 25 days. The diverse group eventually won out and regulations were signed into law by the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.

Almost 20 years after the Voting Rights Act, the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984 promoted “the fundamental right to vote by improving access for handicapped and elderly individuals to registration facilities and polling places for Federal elections.” The Act requires states to “assure that all polling places for Federal elections are accessible to handicapped and elderly voters.” This Act was very important for people with physical disabilities that made voting difficult. It worked to make sure that everyone could get to the polling place, enter the voting booth and understand the instructions for voting.

President Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990

President Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990
President George H.W. Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 into law July 26, 1990. Pictured (left to right): Evan Kemp, Rev Harold Wilke, Pres. H.W. Bush, Sandra Parrino, Justin Dart.

In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The Act recognized that people with disabilities had been precluded from fully participating in all aspects of society because of discrimination. In enacting the ADA, Congress found that there was still consistent discrimination against people with disabilities, even in “critical areas” like voting. One purpose of the ADA is to “provide a clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities.

Upholding Disability Rights

Collectively, these federal laws recognize and protect the right of people with disabilities to vote. They set standards to ensure access to polling places and to permit assistance to voters where it is needed. Many common obstacles to voting for people with disabilities were removed. Subjecting a voter who has a disability to an impromptu challenge based on the voter’s apparent incapacity flies in the face of these stringent federal guarantees of equal rights for voters with disabilities.

Courts have held that even where state constitutions contain a categorical prohibition based on guardianship status, a ward’s right to vote can only be restricted if a judge rules that the person is not capable or competent in terms of voting, and courts retain the authority to preserve a ward’s right to vote.