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Mail Voting Boosted Turnout for Voters With Disabilities. Will Lawmakers Let It Continue?

7 minute read

Republican state lawmakers are advancing a wave of new voting restrictions aimed at reversing the slew of pandemic-inspired election flexibilities, including expansions of mail voting, that most states adopted last year. But new evidence shows that those voting options likely led to significantly higher turnout among Americans with disabilities, a group that is equally as likely to vote Republican as Democrat.

Just 11% of voters with disabilities said they experienced difficulties in voting in 2020, down from 26% in 2012, according to a study on voting accessibility published Wednesday by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC). Among disabled voters who used mail ballots, just 5% reported experiencing difficulties, while 18% of disabled voters who opted for in-person voting encountered difficulties.

Those numbers mark a major change from previous election cycles, according to experts on political participation. “Anything that makes it easier, that provides more options to people with disabilities, is good for the turnout of people with disabilities,” says Douglas Kruse, a professor at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations who co-authored the EAC study.

But in the wake of former President Donald Trump’s election loss and the subsequent Jan. 6 riots incited by his claims of a stolen election, Republican state lawmakers are doubling down on bills that require Americans to jump through more hoops to cast a vote. A recent analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice found that this year, lawmakers have already filed 165 bills to restrict voter access in 33 states. Many of the bills would limit mail voting, add new voter ID requirements, make it tougher to register to vote and easier for states to kick people off voter rolls if they don’t vote in every election. States that were closely contested in 2020 have seen the most legislative action, with Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia leading the pack on new voting restriction proposals. Republicans in Wisconsin and Michigan have indicated they may also pursue similar bills.

Disability advocates argue there’s no reason that mail voting and other moves that increase accessibility should be politicized. People with disabilities are typically split between the two political parties. While Democrats benefit from overall higher turnout, mail voting was traditionally favored by Republicans, including older and rural voters. Trump’s baseless claims last year that mail voting would lead to election fraud largely manufactured the controversy by driving Republican voters away from mail voting. In the end, Democrats cast nearly eight million more mail ballots in the November election than Republicans, according to the United States Election Project.

“Sometimes the legislators may not be fully aware of all the challenges that voters may face in accessing ballots,” said Heidi Burhans, Iowa’s elections director, at an EAC roundtable on Wednesday, urging advocates to continue educating lawmakers. In Iowa, where state election officials have partnered with disability rights organizations to increase voting access, the state sent absentee ballot request forms to all voters ahead of its primary last June. But the Republican-led state legislature then passed a law prohibiting the Secretary of State from taking similar steps on his own in the future. The state did eventually send out absentee ballot request forms to all voters for the November election after the Secretary of State convinced lawmakers over the summer that doing so would help Iowans vote consistently across the state. But the halting process is emblematic of the ongoing debates in many states.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which presents a much greater threat to people with a range of disabilities, led some disability advocates to predict that much of their community would be disenfranchised in the 2020 election. Thanks in part to state expansions in mail and early voting, the EAC report indicates that opposite seems to have been true. The U.S. saw historically high voter turnout overall in the general election, and the gap between disabled voters and nondisabled voters narrowed to just 3.6 percentage points, from 6.3 percentage points in 2016, according to the report.

Three-quarters of Americans with disabilities voted by mail or during an early voting period in 2020, compared to two-thirds of voters without disabilities, the report found. More than half of people with disabilities who voted by mail in 2020 and in-person in the past said they found voting easier last year. (The EAC did not commission an accessibility study after the 2016 election; that year’s disability turnout gap is based on U.S. Census data, which comes out in April.)

Americans with disabilities have historically voted in much lower numbers than their nondisabled counterparts, in large part because of the obstacles they face when trying to cast their ballots. Federal law requires polling places to be accessible to those with disabilities, but deterrents including inaccessible entrances, malfunctioning voting machines and long lines, remain common.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading rapidly in the U.S. last March, elections officials across the country raced to transform their processes to help people minimize exposure to the virus. Some states sent mail ballot request forms to every registered voter, while others changed their rules to allow absentee or mail voting without an excuse. Many added options such as longer early-voting periods to spread out the crowds, curb-side voting and drop boxes to collect mail ballots. These changes helped all Americans, and particularly those with disabilities.

About half of the decline in disabled voters’ difficulties can be attributed to changes spurred by mail voting, according to the EAC study. The other half is likely due to polling places becoming more accessible over time in response to increased efforts from election officials, advocates and policymakers. One in four U.S. adults has a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and disability groups and politicians have ramped up outreach to help Americans with disabilities vote and participate in politics in recent years.

“There’s a lot to be happy about,” says Lisa Schur, also a professor at Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations and co-author of the EAC study. “However, about one in nine voters with disabilities reported having difficulty voting in 2020, and this is double the rate of people without disabilities. More work needs to be done.”

Even with the improvements during the pandemic, 14% of people with disabilities who used mail ballots reported having trouble or needing assistance, and 21% of disabled voters who went in person had trouble. While many states did change their methods, plenty of lawmakers—usually Republicans—resisted pleas and lawsuits urging them to make it easier for people with disabilities to vote in 2020. Rules requiring voters to get mail ballots notarized, or to include a copy of a photo ID with their ballot, for example, presented obstacles to people with mobility limitations, those who don’t have drivers’ licenses and the many who wanted to avoid exposing themselves to other people as the pandemic continued. For blind voters and those who do need assistance voting, in-person accommodations remained important.

Despite Republicans’ skepticism about mail voting in 2020, the voting flexibilities introduced last year have the potential to help both Republican and Democratic voters in the future. Many conservative states are among those with the highest proportion of disabled voters, according to previous research by Kruse and Schur. In Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia, at least one in five eligible voters has a disability, meaning millions of Americans could have an easier time voting if the 2020 changes stay in place.

Disability advocates are hoping their increased participation and partnership with elections officials can help prevent states from reversing last years’ gains.

“We made some really positive changes in how we run our elections,” Michelle Bishop of the National Disability Right Network said during the EAC roundtable. “That doesn’t have to be a COVID thing.”

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