The Intersection Of Disability Rights And Voting Rights

Our guest author today is Norman Hill, lifelong activist in the Civil Rights and Labor movements. Mr. Hill served as the president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute from 1980 to 2004, the longest tenure in the organization’s history. He remains its president emeritus.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is among the most consequential legislative achievements in the history of the United States, having codified for the first time the right to vote for Black Americans established in the 15th Amendment of the Constitution. The resulting enforcement of the VRA led to increasing levels of voter participation not just by Black Americans, whose rights had been viciously suppressed in the South, but also nationally for all Americans of color and those who did not read or speak the English language. In the 2008 and 2012 elections, Black Americans surpassed White Americans in voter participation. In 2018 and 2020 elections, there was record participation by Latino, Asian American and Native American voters.

Little known or mentioned in the law is a provision that also greatly affected the voting rights of another large and previously segregated minority: disabled Americans. In addition to establishing the right of un-coerced assistance for those unable to read or write in English, Section 208 of the VRA established that right for “any voter who requires assistance to vote by reason of blindness or disability.”

I Voted

Our guest author today is Rui Rui Bleifuss, a disability activist and senior at Highland Park Senior High School in St. Paul, MInnesota.

It was November 2, 2021. Slightly annoyed and nervous, I walked into a room to do something I’d never done before.

I was annoyed because it was the end of the first semester of my senior year in high school, and I was way too busy. It seemed like I was going out of my way to do something important but routine, something that was taking me away from more immediate concerns. I had so much homework, but here I was, on my way to vote for the very first time.

I was nervous because I didn’t know how I would be treated. Empowered and supported? Discouraged and suppressed? I am an Asian American woman who is physically disabled. I knew about so many people who had experienced voter discrimination, and the many states trying to pass voter suppression laws. I’d never heard of a first time voter being supported, so why would I expect anything like that? 

I had been so excited in the months leading up to this. But now voting just felt like another thing I needed to check off my to-do list.

U.S. Voter Turnout (And Registration) In Comparative Perspective

As is too often the case, Election Day last week was marred by stories of voter suppression and difficulties, from voter roll purges, to long lines and machine malfunctions at polling stations. Despite these disturbing situations, many of which were either avoidable or deliberate, around 100 million Americans turned out to vote for the first time in a midterm election.

This is heartening to be sure, but even with this landmark, only about half of eligible voters showed up to the polls. In a very real sense, everyone who turned out voted for two people. And this was not a random sample. Voters tend to be disproportionately white, older, better-educated, and higher income than their eligible, non-voting counterparts. The story of any U.S. election, particularly a midterm election, is as much about who didn’t vote as who did, although the question of how outcomes would change if non-voters showed up is not as clear-cut as is sometimes assumed (e.g., Leighley and Nagler 2014).

In any democratic election, there will always be people who do not exercise their franchise, for a wide variety of individual and institutional reasons. Voting behavior is complicated. There is, however, something not quite consistent about having a (possibly) record turnout midterm election in which half of eligible voters stay home. Those of us with a comparative research inclination might wonder if this is the case in other developed democracies.

Not Our President

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

Last Friday, Donald Trump took the oath to become the forty-fifth president of the United States.

Civil rights icon and U.S. Congressman John Lewis spoke for many when he declared that the Trump presidency was not “legitimate.” He was right.

The democratic tradition captured in the words of the Declaration of Independence is unequivocal: It is the consent of the governed that provides a government with legitimacy, with its just powers. That consent is expressed through free and fair elections in which every citizen has the right to vote.

The Trump presidency fails this test of legitimacy on four substantive grounds.

A Quick Look At U.S. Voter Turnout In International Perspective

At quick glance, voter turnout in the United States seems quite low. Over the past 30 years, the turnout rate among eligible voters has fluctuated between 50 and 60 percent, whereas barely two in five eligible voters turn out in midterm elections. And this is not getting better. Turnout in the 2014 election was just under 36 percent, the lowest since the Second World War (these national percentages, of course, vary considerably between states).

It is important, however, to put these figures in context, and one way to do that is to compare U.S. turnout with that in other nations. The Pew Research Center compiled data from recent elections in 34 OECD nations, and the graph below presents those data. The election to which the data apply is noted in parentheses. There are two rates for each nation: One is turnout as a percentage of the voting age population; and the other as a percentage of registered voters (i.e., the proportion of people registered to vote who actually cast a ballot).

The first major takeaway from the graph is that turnout among those old enough to vote is relatively low in the U.S. Of course, the sorting in the graph may obscure the fact that several countries, including Spain and the U.K., are ranked considerably higher than the U.S. but the actual differences in rates aren’t massive (and the U.S. would have ranked much higher in 2008, or if turnout was expressed as a share of the voting eligible population, which, due mostly to felon disenfranchisement and non-citizen residents, is a few percentage points higher). Nevertheless, U.S. electoral participation doesn't look too good vis-a-vis these nations.

Voter Suppression: An American Political Tradition

In her new book, The Politics of Voter Suppression Defending and Expanding Americans' Right to Vote, Tova Andrea Wang tells readers that voter suppression is one of our nation’s political “traditions," arguing that the U.S. has “an election system that’s exquisitely designed for low rates of participation."

And Wang has reason to know – a fellow at Demos and The Century Foundation, she worked as a consultant to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission established by Congress in the aftermath of the “2000 Florida election debacle”. Mandated “by law to study voter fraud and intimidation," the commission hired bipartisan consultants and charged them with investigating both and writing a draft report. According to this 2007 article by Wang, little evidence of fraud was found, but there was lots of evidence of persistent intimidation – findings that were later turned on their head by the political interplay of Congress and George Bush’s Justice Department.

So, it’s not really a huge surprise to find that a big story in the 2012 election cycle is “voter suppression” – meaning attempts to intimidate and deny the franchise to citizens who are legally eligible to vote – presented under the guise of a defense against virtually nonexistent incidents of voter fraud.

A Republic At Risk

Hardly a week goes by when some newspaper or television network doesn’t feature where the U.S. ranks among the nations participating in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). This test, administered to 15-year olds every three years, serves as a benchmark for “how we’re doing” in terms of education outcomes relative to our international competitors.

Because the results get so much attention, millions of Americans are aware that our students' average scores rank relatively low on all three tests (though, when you account for error margins, U.S. scores are actually roughly average). Such awareness has stirred up remarkable urgency to improve our education system – we are told this is a “Sputnik moment," and that the very future of our nation’s economy is at risk.

Yet, for all the attention we pay to our rankings on standardized tests, how many Americans are aware that, in terms of voter turnout (voters as a proportion of voting-age population) between 1945 and 2001, the U.S. ranked 138th out of the world’s 169 democracies? To whatever degree electoral participation is an indicator of the health of a republic, ours is a sick one indeed. And it’s about to get even sicker.

Can We Make Voting Like Tweeting?

A recent Brookings Institution forum on new social media and the re-invigoration of democracy got me thinking about whether and how Twitter and Facebook could successfully increase political participation, specifically voter turnout. Voter turnout is one of the most important indicators of a healthy democracy and – as many have noted – U.S. voter participation rates are remarkably low.

It does not surprise me that people don’t see the immediate gains of voting. Going to the polls on election day entails individual costs (e.g., time, figuring out polling locations), while the benefits are essentially collective and weakly dependent on the vote of any one individual. Thus, people may find that it’s in their interest not to bother (Downs 1957 is the classic work on this). This rational approach conflicts with a more normative (even moral) understanding of democracy and civic behavior – e.g., we know we should all vote; it’s as much our responsibility as our right.

In a much less academic vein, although many U.S. citizens are free-riders when it comes to voting, it appears that Americans love to give their detailed opinions on all kinds of things. For example, why are Americans, who are so enthusiastic and industrious when it comes to writing lengthy product reviews, indolent when they are asked (once every four years) to voice their political views? How can we make voting as compelling as writing an online review? And can social media help in this endeavor?

Suppressing Democracy

At a recent Shanker Institute conference, a guest presenter from the United Kingdom was discussing the historical relationship between public spending and democracy. I don’t remember the exact context, but at some point, he noted, in a perfectly calm, matter-of-fact tone, that one U.S. political party spends a great deal of effort and resources trying to suppress electoral turnout.

It’s always kind of jarring to hear someone from another country make a casual observation about an American practice that’s so objectionable, especially when you're well aware it's plainly true. And perhaps never more so than right now.

There are currently several states – most with Republican governors and/or legislatures, including Wisconsin and Ohio – that are either considering or have already passed bills that would require citizens to obtain government-issued identification (or strengthen previous requirements), such as driver’s licenses or passports, in order to register to vote and/or cast a ballot. The public explanation given by these lawmakers and their supporters is that identification requirements will reduce voter fraud. This is so transparently dishonest as to be absurd. Recent incidences of voter fraud are exceedingly rare. Most of these laws are clearly efforts to increase the “costs” of voting for large groups of people who traditionally vote Democratic.

Others have commented on the politics behind these efforts. I’d like to put them in context.

Public Employee Unions And Voter Turnout

During the recent debates over public employees’ collective bargaining rights, especially around the Wisconsin protests, I heard a few people argue that Republican governors are intent on destroying public sector unions, at least in part, because union members are more likely to vote – and to vote Democratic.

The latter argument (union members are more likely to vote Democratic) is generally true (also here) – although the union "effect" on candidate/party choice is of course complicated. The former argument (more likely to vote in general) is also valid, but there is some underlying public/private variation that is both interesting and important.

As is almost always the case, isolating the effect of a given factor (in this case, how being a union member affects the likelihood of voting) requires one to compare how this factor “operates” on people who are otherwise similar. For example, in a previous post, I compared public and private sector workers’ earnings. In order to uncover the “effect” of public sector employment on earnings, I used models that controlled for other relevant, measurable factors, such as education and experience. In doing so, I was able to (imperfectly) ensure that I was comparing public and private employees who were similar in terms of skills and qualifications.

The same basic concept applies to voting.