Kim Lyons, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
February 7, 2024
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) is introducing legislation Wednesday aimed at making it easier for people with disabilities to participate in elections, by removing barriers to voting and running for office.
The legislation includes three bills. One would improve accessibility to voting by establishing a new oversight office, one would make it easier to run for and hold elected office by offering support to local communities to make the necessary accommodations, and one would ensure people with disabilities don’t lose their federal disability benefits when they campaign for elected office.
“Our democracy is stronger and better off when every American has the opportunity to fully participate. Yet for many people with disabilities, barriers remain to voting, running for office, and serving in local government,” Casey, who is chairman of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, told the Capital-Star. “This new suite of legislation will help tear down those barriers and ensure that people with disabilities are no longer disproportionately excluded from American democracy.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 4 adults in the U.S. has a disability, but Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that people with disabilities participate in the the labor force at half the rate of people without disabilities (even though that figure improved significantly during and after the pandemic due to the rise in remote work). One area where this underrepresentation is particularly glaring is in local elected office, the National Council on Independent Living has found; roughly 10% of elected officials are people with disabilities.
Here’s a look at the bills and what they would do:
The Accessible Voting Act (AVA) would establish an Office of Accessibility within the Election Assistance Commission, which sets voting guidelines for counties and states, to provide support for and oversee state efforts to expand voter accessibility.
Despite the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, voting places and procedures aren’t always accessible, and compliance with the ADA at polling places is not widely enforced.
Officials with the Government Accountability Office visited 167 polling places in 2016 and found only 17% of polling places were fully accessible for people who wanted to vote in person, due largely to deficiencies in architectural and voting booth access. Steep ramps and a lack of parking options were among the most common issues, the GAO found.
And in 2020, one in nine voters with disabilities encountered difficulties voting— double the rate of people without disabilities— according to analysis by the Election Assistance Commission.
Transportation issues also present barriers to voting for older voters and those who live in rural areas; the Native American Voting Rights Coalition found in 2017 that the distance people had to travel to their polling places and absentee ballot drop-off boxes had a significant impact on the ability of Native Americans to vote, for instance.
The AVA would authorize states to receive $100 million in accessibility grants every two years to implement voter accessibility upgrades. And it would re-authorize Department of Health and Human Services grants for states to improve voting accessibility for people with disabilities and older Americans. The AVA also would create a national resource center on accessible voting to help train election officials and poll workers, and expand options for casting ballots in federal elections.
Pennsylvania U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-5th District) is introducing a companion bill to the AVA in the House.
Protecting federal benefits
The Removing Access Barriers to Running for Elected Office for People with Disabilities Act does precisely what its somewhat awkward name states: It would ensure people with disabilities who run for office can’t be disqualified from receiving federal disability benefits, like Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Social Security Disability Insurance, and Medicaid.
The act would amend the Social Security Act to clarify that filing and running for office aren’t considered the type of “gainful activity” that typically would disqualify someone from receiving federal disability benefits. A companion bill is being introduced in the House by Pennsylvania U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-4th District).
Running for office
A local government in an area with a small population, or a population that has a high poverty rate, may not have the resources to pay for accommodations for an elected official who has a disability, which in turn may discourage people with disabilities from running for office at all.
The AID (Accessibility and Inclusion to Diversify) Local Government Leadership Act of 2024 would create an ongoing fund to help eligible municipalities provide accommodations for current and future elected officials with disabilities. Dean is also introducing companion legislation to this bill in the House.
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