Disability Power Series

Disability, Voter Suppression, and Becoming a Warrior for Democracy

Lindsay Drexler
September 4, 2020

We recently hosted an invite-only Disability Power Series virtual conversation featuring national leader and best-selling author Stacey Abrams, founder of the New Georgia Project, Fair Fight, and Fair Count. Her newest book Our Time Is Now has been called a striking manifesto on reshaping the future of democracy. A recognized expert on fair voting and civic engagement, Stacy is best known for fighting against voter suppression and fighting for voters of color both in her home state of Georgia and around the country.

Because this Disability Power Series installment was intended for a private audience, we will not be publishing a video as we have done for past DPS installments. Alternatively, we offer this recap of Stacey’s main insights, too compelling not to be shared.

Emily is listening, the interpreter is mid-sign, and Stacey is smiling.
Top right: Emily Blum; top left: ASL interpreter Rivka; center bottom: Stacey Abrams

Use Your Power To Vote

Stacey offers a keen truth right off the bat. “When you begin from a position of suppression, the only way up, the only way out, is to access your power. […] And in a democracy, in a representative democracy, the most fundamental power is the ability to cast a vote.”

She uses one of her favorite television shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, as an analogy for voting. “In its very last season, they had this narrative that was woven throughout the story about potentials. […] The notion was that there were millions who held the same superpowers [as Buffy], they just didn’t know it. […] I believe that the power of our democracy is embedded in those of us who have been told that we may have potential, but that we’re not ready yet, that people aren’t ready for us yet, that it’s not our time yet. I believe it is our time. I know it is our power.”

Remove Registration Barriers

Event participant Sharon Anderson notes that though many people with disabilities want to exercise their right to vote, registration requirements often shut them out. She asks Stacey how these barriers can be lifted.

Stacey believes we must demand three things of our elected officials:

1. Automatic registration

“As a citizen of this country, you should be automatically registered to vote, and that should be a requirement in every single state [and you should] have the ability for same-day registration. If you change states, then your registration follows you.”

2. Elimination of restrictive voter identification

“The restrictive requirements for identification to be able to cast a ballot have been designed to filter out certain communities. And that filtering, as we discussed earlier, has its intersection of race and ethnicity, but it also has an intersection with ability and disability.”

3. Enforcement of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993

“That act permits voter registration in places where you engage or encounter governmental offices.”

The nature of the United States is what leads to incohesive registration and voting laws. “While the Constitution may grant the right to vote, it also delegates the administration of voting and all of its parts to the states,” Stacey explains, “and so what is going to be necessary is federal legislation that actually equalizes how you access the right to vote.”

“We have to be intentional and call it out,” she says, “and demand that states not require these heightened, restrictive requirements to be able to register to vote.”

Demand Accessible Ballots

Disability Lead Fellow and event participant Keidra Chaney has low vision and requires the use of magnifiers and large print, not always readily available at polling places. She asks Stacey for thoughts on how voting can become a more independent process.

Stacey says the only way to ensure everyone can vote securely, privately, and independently is by offering multiple accessible ways to vote: vote by mail, in-person early voting, and in-person voting on the day of the election, all with the option to request specific accommodations, including large type ballots and accessible voting machines.

“We have to remember that voter suppression doesn’t just exist in election years. It’s built into the system,” Stacey points out. “And when you cannot vote independently, when there is a barrier to your participation, then you face suppression — and therefore we have to fix the system.”

The way to do that is by requesting compliance now. “We are in August. The election is in November. Reaching out right now to your local elections officials and saying, here’s my experience the last time, tell me what you’re going to do to help — that’s how we start to see change.”

Event participant and Disability Lead Member T.J. Gordon is autistic and finds himself frustrated with unclear language in ballots. He asks Stacey how we can ensure that plain language is the standard in government communication.

“As a former and possibly one day again politician, I can tell you a lot of that’s intentional,” Stacey divulges, adding, “and it’s not simply to target those with disabilities, it’s often designed to confuse the average voter.”

Stacey mentions the Plain Writing Act of 2010, which requires federal agencies to use clear government communication. “Unfortunately,” she continues, “there is not an identical law that has to be followed by every single state, which means, depending on the state you live in, you may or may not have the right to actually understand what’s on the ballot.”

Again, the solution lies in self-advocacy. “We are going to have to advocate in our state legislatures and in our city councils […] and the standards are pretty clear: they have to tell you what will change if the measure passes (meaning what happens if you vote yes, what happens if you vote no), and they should use short, simple, everyday words and write in the positive because using the negative or passive voice is designed to confuse the reader.”

Doors to a polling places with various polling signage.

Hold Your Polling Places Accountable

Disability Lead Fellow and event participant Brianna Beck is of short stature and uses an electric scooter. When she goes to polling places, the main entrance is oftentimes inaccessible, forcing her to use an unmarked side entrance with labyrinthine paths to the main polling room. She asks Stacey how we should address these barriers.

Stacey tells Brianna that “the first step in advocacy is making certain that people have the necessary education. I know it can feel inappropriate to be asked to tell lawmakers and law office holders to do their jobs, but sadly in our society, that is often the way change happens.” Reach out to the person in charge at the polling place, as well as the Secretary of State and county officials in our county to let them know about poor polling place experiences. If the problem continues to persist despite these efforts, Stacey suggests taking it to the press and using social media to get the word out as much as possible.

Why these barriers exist at polling places at all is because, despite its vast protections, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) explicitly excludeschurches and religious institutions from compliance. As it happens, churches and religious institutions are one of the few available gathering places with near-guaranteed availability on Tuesdays (election day), leaving a loophole begging to be exploited.

“What began as a matter of convenience and access has now been weaponized,” Stacey says. She explains that those who oppose expanded access to voting will shut down a location and claim that it is because it is not ADA compliant — without coming up with an alternative that is. This leads to fewer polling places, rather than an equal amount of ADA compliant polling places, which should be the goal.

Stacey urges everyone to attend election meetings (most are virtual now!) to call out inaccessible polling places, “but also advocate very strongly and say that your demand is not that [the polling place should] be shut down, […] it’s that it be shifted so that as many people as possible can access it.”

Get Involved In The Election Process

Event participant Seth Renault is Deaf and speaks American Sign Language. He shares his rocky journey with applying to be an Election Judge in 2012. The State Board of Elections insisted he wasn’t qualified because he “couldn’t speak English” and refused to supply him with an interpreter. Seth fought this discriminatory disqualification and was finally able to serve as Election Judge in 2014. He asks Stacey how people can avoid barriers to being involved in the election process.

“We know heading into this November election, the need for poll workers will be great. And when there is a scarcity, that’s always one of the best times to get people to confront their challenges and their privileges. Having more people, more voters with disabilities serve as poll workers will often force those local polling places to understand what they need to do to accommodate and include.”

Better Yet — Run For Office

Event participant State Senator Robert Peters asks Stacey how we can encourage more people with disabilities to run for office.

Stacey replies, “We know in politics that the person most likely to run for office is the person who is asked to run. […] Reach out, and all of you who are participating in this webinar, pick your champions. Acknowledge people who you believe would do an excellent job of raising your issues and serving your needs and ask them to run.” Adding slyly, “I would also encourage you to think about whether that person should be you. Because you can ask yourself in the mirror, and you can say yes.”

Screenshot of Stacey listening serenely during the Zoom conversation.

Disability Lead Executive Director Emily Blum asks Stacey the final question of the day: “Not everyone claims disability as part of their identity, but why should they?”

Stacey’s perfect reply?

“If you hide from your disability, then you give others permission to ignore it. I say embrace who you are. I say embrace all of who you are. Because that’s the way we have the power to demand what we deserve.”

Read that one more time. Really let it soak in. “Demand what you deserve.

Thank you to our Disability Power Series sponsors:

Disruptor: Ann Manikas

Disability Power Series