2020 Election
Iva Woke (L), a 100-year-old resident living in Chestertown, Maryland, casts her ballot in a voting booth as others do the same at the Kent County Public Library in Maryland's early voting on October 25, 2018.
Jim Watson—AFP/Getty Images
By Abigail Abrams
July 10, 2019

When politicians are planning their outreach to various demographics ahead of the 2020 presidential race, they often focus on groups such as African Americans, Latinos, LGBTQ people or even suburban women. They don’t often talk about people with disabilities.

But new data shows that politicians who ignore disabled Americans may be missing out on a growing group of voters whose support could be up for grabs in 2020 — and activists are hoping to take advantage of this momentum.

Voter turnout among people with disabilities surged by 8.5 percentage points in 2018, representing a larger increase and more voters than in any of the previous two midterm elections, according to a report released Wednesday by researchers at Rutgers University.

Last year’s midterms saw historic turnout overall, with large jumps among every major racial and ethnic group. People with disabilities not only saw an increase to 49.3% turnout in 2018, but they also reversed a previous trend of declining or stagnant turnout in recent years.

“We know that people with disabilities face more barriers in going to the polls, so it was nice to see that they participated in this surge just like people without disabilities,” said Douglas Kruse, a professor at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations and co-author of the study.

Turnout among disabled voters declined between 2010 and 2014, like the general population’s turnout, and it declined slightly (though was within the margin of error) between 2008 and 2012, and again in 2016, even when overall turnout went back up. In 2018, though, 14.3 million people with disabilities reported voting, according to the Rutgers study, which analyzed data from the Current Population Survey.

This number surpassed the 11.7 million Latinos who voted in 2018, despite that group nearly doubling its votes last year, and came close to the 15.2 million black voters who cast ballots in the midterm election.

While the number of disabled voters in 2018 was clearly significant, Kruse and his co-author Lisa Schur note that there was still a 4.7 point gap in turnout between those with disabilities and those without, meaning there is potential for the disability vote to carry even more weight. One in four U.S. adults has a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Rutgers analysis found that if people with disabilities voted at the same rate as similar people without disabilities, there would be 2.35 million more voters. Non-disabled people who live in households that have a person with a disability made up another 10.2 million voters in 2018, further expanding the electorate of people who could care about disability issues.

However, a number of obstacles, including a lack of outreach by politicians, feelings of marginalization and difficulty navigating inaccessible polling places have historically kept disability voter turnout low. Now as the 2019 and 2020 elections approach, disability advocacy groups are tackling many of these issues and hoping to build on the energy their community has seen in the past few years to make their presence known in the next election cycle.

One of the most prominent groups doing this work is the American Association of People with Disabilities, which started its nonpartisan REV UP campaign in 2016 to promote voter turnout among people with disabilities, advocate for accessibility and educate voters about disability issues. Each year the group has organized a National Disability Voter Registration Week and it now has disability voting coalitions in 32 states around the country.

“We really started this because we want to make sure we grow into a voting bloc and that our vote is considered in the same light that politicians look at white suburban women, or black women or older Americans who have always voted in high numbers,” Helena Berger, president and CEO of AAPD, told TIME.

As part of their analysis, Kruse and Schur looked at states with REV UP coalitions and found a slight increase in voter turnout among people with disabilities in 2018 compared to people without disabilities in those states. Their findings come just in time for this year’s disability voter registration week, which will take place July 15 to 19 and will feature events across the country and online to ensure that people with all kinds of disabilities can participate.

Part of the goal for these efforts is to convince people with disabilities that their votes matter, said AAPD’s Keri Gray, who oversees the REV UP campaign. There have long been disability advocates who participate in activism around issues such as health care and employment, but because so many issues feel urgent under the Trump Administration and politicians don’t always court the disability vote, organizing around elections has sometimes taken a backseat.

“There’s a lot of wariness in the voting process, particularly in marginalized communities,” Gray said. “I want to genuinely make that connection between folks who are running for office, between the legislation that we end up voting for, and the people [voting].”

In 2016, Hillary Clinton talked about people with disabilities more than many previous candidates and the Democratic National Convention highlighted disability rights on the national stage. But Donald Trump’s most memorable moment on the topic was making fun of a reporter with a disability, and his policies since taking office have mostly spurred protests as disability advocates have fought to protect their health care.

So far, the 2020 election cycle has seen a mixed start. None of the 2020 presidential candidates began their campaigns with websites that are fully accessible to blind voters, and only some have included captions on their videos, which are necessary for deaf or hard of hearing voters. Some candidates such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren have referenced people with disabilities in specific policy proposals, while New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand promised to put a person with disabilities in her Cabinet and Mayor Pete Buttigieg hired a staffer who uses a wheelchair.

But during the first Democratic debates, disabilities were not brought up at all, notes Alice Wong, a disabled activist who started the #CripTheVote hashtag with co-partners Gregg Baratan and Andrew Pulrang during the 2016 election. Wong said many politicians don’t think about disabled voters as a community they should be appealing to at all.

“A lot of people don’t recognize the disability community as a community with a culture or a history,” Wong said. “We’re such a heterogeneous community and [disabilities are] still seen as very individual health problems or diagnoses.”

People with disabilities tend to split their votes between the political parties, so in theory both parties should have an incentive to woo these voters. Wong and her partners have used #CripTheVote to continue discussing policy priorities and build a community of politically active people with disabilities over the past three years. They live-tweeted the first 2020 debates last month and plan to keep encouraging disabled people to engage with not only the presidential election but other federal and local elections too.

Social media has been a game-changing tool, Wong said, especially for people with mobility limitations or those who do not live near other people with disabilities. This social engagement is important for voter turnout too. People with disabilities who were employed in 2018 were just as likely to vote as employed people without disabilities, the Rutgers report found, suggesting that involvement in a community can help increase the chances that people will vote.

Still, even when people with disabilities are motivated to vote, they often face obstacles such as a lack of transportation, voter ID laws and inaccessible polling places or voting machines. The U.S. Government Accountability Office conducted a review of polling places during the 2016 election and found that 60% of those reviewed had at least one impediment to voters with disabilities. Other issues such as broken voting machines or requiring people to stand in long lines can present problems for disabled voters.

“Things that can be inconvenient or annoying for people without disabilities can really be very difficult barriers to overcome for a lot of potential voters with disabilities,” said Schur, who chairs the Department of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at Rutgers.

In addition to raising awareness about disability issues and encouraging voter registration, disability advocates want to fix more of these accessibility problems before the 2020 election. Organizations like the National Council on Independent Living have put out Get Out The Vote guides and information about ballot accessibility in the past, and the council just launched the first national campaign training program for people with disabilities this summer. RespectAbility and the Disability Rights Center in New Hampshire have put out surveys to candidates on disability issues. AAPD often fields questions about what polling places need to be accessible. With all these efforts, Berger said she thinks the disability community is already in a better place than it was just a few years ago, but she wants to see more serious commitments from politicians and election officials as the cycle moves forward.

For many people with disabilities, change will require both tackling barriers to voting and convincing the political world to see them as fully empowered, said Wong. “Voting should be this basic right, but it’s a right that we can’t take it for granted,” she said. “The idea is that we all have a stake in this, and we all should be a part of the process and have that kind of power.”

Write to Abigail Abrams at abigail.abrams@time.com.

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