Rolling Back the Rights: Southern States’ Sneaky Attempts to Silence Disabled Voters

The lights of democracy shone a bit brighter in 2020 as the voter turnout of people with disabilities climbed to an inspiring record high. But it seems that some lawmakers, fearful of the power of a diverse electorate, are working to dim that light. This has prompted advocates to gird their loins and fight tooth and nail against policy maneuvers designed to suppress the voices of disabled voters.

In the historic 2020 Presidential elections, 62% of voters with disabilities cast their ballots, a significant hike from the 56% figure reported in the 2016 elections. This was largely due to policies implemented in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic to make voting more accessible. Still, about 11% of these voters, nearly two million people, found it tough to exercise their democratic rights, which is almost twice the rate faced by people without disabilities.

Now, the 2024 elections are looming, and it seems that some are more interested in raising barriers than breaking them down. The Center for American Progress (CAP) rang alarm bells with their 2021 report stating that, even with COVID-imposed accessibility measures, one in nine disabled voters grappled with hurdles on their way to the ballot box in 2020.

According to the CAP, these impediments ranged from labyrinthine mail-in voting rules to physically inaccessible voting and registration sites, to election materials that trip up voters with reading or learning disabilities. Disturbingly, states in the South, where the concentration of people with disabilities is highest, seem to be the epicenter of such oppressive policies.

On the frontlines of this battle for voting rights are people like Dom Kelly, president and CEO of New Disabled South, who’s driving home the reality that disability is a broad spectrum and calls for diverse options for participation. Yet, Southern lawmakers seem keen on ushering in policies that limit assistance and restrict mail-in ballots.

In an audacious move, states like Arkansas and Florida have passed laws specifically attacking mail-in voting, a lifeline for many disabled voters during the 2020 election. Meanwhile, Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi have introduced measures like voter ID laws, early-voting restrictions, polling place closures, and limits on curbside voting and ballot drop boxes that disproportionately affect disabled voters.

Despite the headwinds, disability and voting rights advocates are pushing back. In Mississippi, advocates filed a federal lawsuit challenging a law that limits who can return mail-in ballots, a restriction that they argue breaches federal voting protections for people with disabilities.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, voting rights organizations sought an emergency preliminary injunction against Senate Bill 202, which imposes barriers to voting that disproportionately affect people of color, women, and people with disabilities. The provisions under the scanner include making it a felony for third-party individuals to help a disabled person return their absentee ballot and moving ballot drop boxes from accessible sites to less accessible locations inside polling places.

In the Lone Star State, Texas Governor Greg Abbott turned down a bipartisan bill that would have improved mail-in voting access for people with disabilities, drawing sharp criticism from voting rights advocates.

In a political landscape where the right to vote is becoming a battleground, it’s critical that we fight for every voter’s access to the ballot box. Democracy thrives on diversity, and it’s our collective duty to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard, irrespective of their abilities. These ongoing battles serve as a stark reminder that the fight for an equitable democracy is far from over. As young, socially conscious readers, we need to join the conversation, get informed, and stand against the suppression of voters, especially those from marginalized communities.