In October 2020, Senior Global Inclusion Advisor for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), Virginia Atkinson, interviewed Michelle Bishop, the Voter Access & Engagement Manager of the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN). The interview discussed the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and how vote-by-mail measures have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. The interview is attached.
Virginia Atkinson: Thank you for joining us, Michelle. Michelle, you are the Voter Access and Engagement Manager of the National Disability Rights Network. I know you have been leading a team for quite a few years, working on voting rights across the United States and before that also worked in several specific states on the voting rights of people with disabilities. So we are looking forward to hearing from you today on your experiences on disability rights in the elections ahead of the U.S. 2020 Elections.
Michelle Bishop: Yes, thank you so much for having me I'm excited to talk about it!
Virginia: Great, so this year is the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. How would you say that this law has impacted the voting rights of people with disabilities here in the U.S?
Michelle: Immeasurably. You can never over exceed how important the ADA has been to all facets of life for Americans with disabilities. But in voting, I think it's been really crucial. We had some laws in place prior to the ADA that said that perhaps, you know, federal buildings have to be accessible. We did have some laws that predated the ADA that did say that polling places are supposed to be accessible. But it also offered a lot of leeway. If your polling places weren’t accessible, you could just give someone another way of voting- that sort of thing. The ADA is really that landmark piece of civil rights legislation that said: "all things need to be accessible and everyone should have equal access to all American life, including elections." So it really is the gold standard for ensuring that polling places are accessible to people with disabilities and ensuring that absentee vote-by-mail systems are accessible to people with disabilities. It really is the major piece of legislation that we are relying on to ensure that the right to vote for people with disabilities is being respected. I can barely remember life before the ADA. I brag that I am young enough that I can barely remember life before the ADA, but I certainly don't want to go back there by any means.
Virginia: So the ADA allowed for positive changes; would you say the job is done? You know, voting access secured for all Americans with disabilities? Or are there still barriers that people are facing to equal participation in elections?
Michelle: I wish, I wish that this was a conversation that we were having today to announce my retirement because we had just solved all the problems. That would be amazing. No, I think the ADA is progress and we have come along way, but we still have a lot of work to do. The first instance, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has been studying the accessibility of polling places going back to 2000. In 2000, they found that less than 20% of polling places were actually compliant with the ADA’s architectural access requirement, so from where you park, to when you get up to the voting station. Less than 20% were actually considered accessible. We have been driving that number forward and now we are up to 40% that would be considered fully accessible. So it took a lot of work to get there. That was a really hard road and we are really proud of the fact that we are moving in the right direction, but that is also really slow progress. That is the difference between 2000 and 2016, that is a long time to push our polling places to less than being compliant with the architectural access requirement of the ADA. So we have made a lot of progress, but by no means are we there yet. There is still a lot of work to be done.
Virginia: Yeah, this is such a perennial challenge. I am always surprised when I hear that figure because you expect polling places in the U.S. to be more accessible.
Michelle: Yeah, I think anyone that doesn't do this work is shocked when they hear those numbers. They're like, “we haven’t solved that problem? That seems like a very solvable problem.” I agree- it is a solvable problem. I think that ADA could be enforced more strongly and I think that just in general, everyone could be much more knowledgeable about the ADA and what it includes. I know it’s a really big piece of legislation and I know that it is complicated, but it is so crucial and we still run into election officials who are not versed in the ADA who are responsible for those polling places. However, we also run into those elected officials who say we are trying to find more accessible polling places, but you have no idea the number of global businesses out here that don’t understand the ADA and they have contractors that don’t understand the ADA. So it's kind of a widespread problem. I think that what we see in voting is systematic of how accessible we are overall.
Virginia: Yeah, most polling stations here in the U.S., as well as in many other countries are schools. So if polling stations are that inaccessible that means that many schools are inaccessible to students and teachers with disabilities as well.
Michelle: For sure, for sure. It’s a big problem. Even with schools that are reasonably accessible, sometimes the area of the school that we are allowed to use for polling places are less than ideal. We use churches as polling places a lot. Churches are one of the few places that are telling the truth when they tell that they are accepted by the ADA. But when they are serving as polling places, it does have to be ADA compliant. It is also probably the right thing for a church to do whether or not it is a requirement, right? If a church is to be open to all then you should probably be accessible. We are also sometimes surprised when we talk to elections officials who say, “we went and found nursing homes and long-term care facilities, places we thought will be a slam dunk, places we thought would be ADA compliant and they weren’t.” The only thing we can tell them is we do disability rights work, we promise you we know the scope of the problem. You can't tell me anything that is going to surprise me when you're looking for accessible voting locations. So we have come so far, and life, before we had those protections, was just completely different for people with disabilities. We still have a long way to go and it's a bit of a moving target, right? I mean, polling places, some polling places have been used for 30 years, but they also move. Those locations close or they decline to serve or they perhaps the accessibility of them has deteriorated over time, so it just changes. We can educate election officials on accessibility and what that means but they don't necessarily serve for life and someone new comes on board and needs that education all over again. We work really hard to train poll workers to make sure they understand how to interact respectfully with people with disabilities and what accommodations they are entitled to. But those poll workers can also change over time. So part of the problem, I think, is that access is not a finish line. There is not a finish line, it is always a moving target. I think it is something we will probably always be working towards.
Virginia: Yeah, that is a good point especially now, in the current context of COVID-19, you know, both here in the U.S. and globally, impacting elections. Accessibility becomes even more of a moving target, as you've said. We are seeing here in the U.S. a lot of expansion in terms of mail-in-voting and that is something that many people, or many states, allowed people with disabilities to vote by mail already. How are you seeing vote by mail impacting people with disabilities now in the current COVID-19 context?
Michelle: I think there is a really good reason that vote-by-mail is such a big deal, it just makes a lot of sense in the context of the pandemic that some of us need to limit our exposure. Right? People are considered high risk from complications under COVID-19, people who are immune-compromised need to limit their exposure. We are at the point now, where we are so close to the election, we need to think about the people who tested positive for COVID-19, who are eligible voters. How are we going to ensure that they have access to their ballot without jeopardizing the health of the people around them? Or if you don't fall under any of those categories, but you're thinking “I want to do my part to reduce congestion at the polls for the sake of COVID-19.” All of those are reasons why vote by mail has taken center stage during 2020. The problem with that, that we were grappling with back in March, is that a lot of absentee and vote-by-mail systems are not accessible to people with disabilities. It's really an issue that has flown under the radar for a really long time because that is just not how the ADA works. You can't say our polling places are accessible, so our vote by mail isn't or our polling places are inaccessible so you can vote by mail. Really if those options are available to non-disabled voters, they have to be accessible for all voters. If someone who doesn't have a disability can choose whether or not they're going to go to their polling place or vote-by-mail, a person with a disability has the same right. Vote-by-mail and absentee are exactly what it sounds like. The traditional method of that is mailing you a piece of paper. So you have to be able to handle that paper, read that paper, mark that paper by hand. So for many eligible voters, that is just not a reality. So we have to find ways to make it more accessible. An interesting thing about it, I get asked so much this year, what is COVID-19 doing to elections access? Is it making it harder for people with disabilities to vote? There are a lot of ways I'm thinking that's true. But there are a lot of ways I think we've made progress. A lot of states were forced to take a good hard look at their vote-by-mail systems and say this doesn't work for everyone. So they've added new options like receiving that ballot electronically so if you can't hand mark it, then you can use whatever technology you have at home to mark it through a computer, a tablet, something like that. It's really making our vote-by-mail systems more accessible, so I think we have also seen progress in a lot of states. We also took a good hard look at some of the requirements. Some of the hoops we make you jump through to vote-by-mail; places where you have to get it notarized, or you have to have at least two witnesses sign, or my favorite, places where if you vote-by-mail because you have a disability you have to have a doctor's note attesting to your disability. Which I think is a bit over the top and a lot. In terms of COVID-19, someone who is quarantining either because they are high risk for COVID-19, or they have COVID-19, doesn't necessarily have access to a doctor to do the note or a notary or someone to sign. A notary is a challenge in many parts of the United States, when we aren't dealing with the worst pandemic we have seen in a hundred years. So we took a good hard look at those requirements and we saw some states start to relax. I hope they will keep that going post-2020 because it opens up the process and makes it easier for everyone to participate.
Virginia: You mentioned some of the challenges I think that people often assume vote-by-mail is what people with disabilities want. That is definitely not the case for everyone. And many people with disabilities still want to vote in person, in their polling stations.
Michelle: For sure, I love voting in person, I want my “I-Voted” sticker on Election Day. It is part of the process. I feel so patriotic when I go out and vote. I love it. I get a rush off of it. Maybe it’s because that is what I do for a living and I am a nerd, but I think that a lot of people feel that way and I think that when we talk about elections being accessible, we talk so much about polling places that I think a lot of people think "oh you could just vote-by-mail” and then it doesn't matter if your polling place is really far away and there is no accessible public transit, or the polling place isn't accessible. But that ballot still has to be accessible, that's part of the equation.
Virginia: What are you seeing in terms of Native Americans with disabilities and what kind of barriers are they encountering to voting, generally, but also right now in terms of this COVID-19 context?
Michelle: This is always something we are concerned about. This is a tough issue. When we look at Native Americans with disabilities, and in particular, when we look at Native Americans with disabilities who are living on reservations where it is a really complex relationship between the government, local state and federal governments, the tribal government and the ADA, where it doesn't necessarily apply in the same way but we still need those polling places to be accessible. That's a really difficult path to navigate. It can be a struggle, I think elections officials who have large sections of their jurisdictions that are in reservations will tell you, we are working so hard with the community. We've done a lot of work in Coconino County, in Arizona and they're working so hard with the community, but it can be really difficult to find accessible locations and enough of them and not far away from people with disabilities who need to access them. So I think that is something we are always concerned about. I know that finding polling places is more of a challenge in 2020 because some places simply cannot serve, especially if it is a school or a care facility, where they have to protect the students or the residents. And I think that is where vote-by-mail comes up again, mail service in a lot of these areas is not as reliable for someone like me, who lives outside of Washington D.C., where it comes like clockwork every day. If you send me something by mail it'll come in 2 days, I guarantee it. That's not a reality for everyone. So we worry about that as well, but we really worry about that for Native American's who also have disabilities. Where not only receiving that ballot but returning it, can be a challenge. These are the types of places where you hear that there is one person who volunteers to go get the mail for everyone because it is such a trip. So someone with a vehicle goes and gets the mail for everyone. They go and take the ballots back. That is something that we have relied on for some people to have access to the vote and it has become, unfortunately, a political issue and so we are really having to defend those traditional ways of making sure someone can get their ballot in their environment where it is more challenging.
Virginia: So what recommendations do you have Michelle? What should election administrators do both to increase the access to Native American’s with disabilities, but also for all citizens with disabilities?
Michelle: I think that if you do one thing, if you do literally one thing, it should be to talk to the community. You don't have to make these decisions on your own, or in isolation. You don't have to try to figure out how all of these laws work because disability rights law is a complex patchwork of different pieces of legislation. You don't have to try and figure out what the best practice solutions are, on your own and then present it to voters with disabilities. Then they're like, “that doesn't work at all.” We see that sometimes. So bring them into the process. Talk to disability rights organizations, talk to disability rights advocates, talk to voters who happen to have disabilities and bring to them the challenges and let them be part of finding the solution. At NDRN, we are a national network. We have disability rights organizations in every state and territory. They love it when they are invited into that process. When you come to them and say "we've got four polling places in our jurisdiction that are not ADA compliant, we cannot figure out what to do with them" they love to say "let us look at them and see if you can do some same day modifications and adapt them. Or maybe there is another location in the immediate vicinity that will work a bit better. Let's figure out what we can do. Are there some measure we can apply in the meantime, are you open to doing some curbside voting until we figure this out. We would rather do that than have a polling place close for voters who are relying on it.” They love being asked, come and test out our new voting equipment. We want to know how accessible it is. Can we round up some voters with disabilities to test it out? They will tell you. If they test out a machine and it is not working for that person based on their access needs, they will let you know really fast. That information is invaluable. In the same way, we may ask election security experts to advise us on how secure a machine is. We should be asking the people who know access better than anyone else, how accessible it is. The same way we rely on our elected officials to think, this is a machine we can deploy far and wide, or this type of ballot is going to be difficult for us to count on the backend. I don't have expertise in that and I know that I don't. I rely on election officials to know that because they know more about running elections than anybody else in the country. So let's go to the people who know more about having a disability and what access means than anyone else in the country and engage people with disabilities in that whole process from start to finish. So much of how we run elections in the U.S. is so localized and so many of those solutions are so localized. There is only so much we can do with federal law and state laws, to be honest, so much is working the ground, county by county, jurisdiction to jurisdiction, polling place to polling place to make it work. So those practical relationships on the ground are sometimes the best things we can do to figure it out.
Virginia: Do you have any recommendations for election officials in other countries? That is looking at the U.S. Elections, where we are rolling out postal voting across most of the states and other election administrators may be looking at the U.S. as an example and thinking “can we make that work here?” What would you recommend in addition to talking to people with disabilities in their countries? What else could election administrators do to ensure postal voting is accessible in other countries?
Michelle: If there is one thing that I have learned, it is that creating access for voters, not even just voters with disabilities, but all voters, is this everything but the kitchen sink method. There is no one way of voting that works for everyone. Whether or not we are talking about in-person voting, or early voting, or voting-by-mail and how you receive that vote-by-mail ballot, one method is not going to work for everyone. It is having a menu of options for voters so they can figure out what is going to work best for them and what best meets their needs. All voters are so different and whatever their challenges are in getting to the polls, they are so different and people with disabilities are the same. No two disabilities are the same, no two people that have the same disability are the same. They may not experience it the same way or have the same challenges. It is so big. Trying to make it accessible and work for everyone is so big. It is a goal we have to keep striving for, but we understand how complicated it is, so in my mind, thinking how many different options can we create for voters that will make the system work for them is the right place to start.
Virginia: Well thank you, Michelle. It has been really interesting talking to you and learning a bit about what is happening here in the U.S. and how that can be applied in other countries. In particular, something you mentioned that is important is that not all access options cost money, you know? Putting a polling station on the ground floor, rather than the second floor when there is no elevator does not cost money, that is just a policy decision to think about. Or consulting with people with disabilities, as you suggested, does not cost money. It is just something that you need to make time to do. Something else that I thought you mentioned that is really important, is not assuming that people with disabilities don't want to vote in person, you know? So we have these alternative measures like postal voting which are great, but we have to make sure that the in-person options are also accessible. And in particular, think about how people with different types of disabilities are impacted by the access options that we make. Especially Native American's with disabilities who might have unique barriers, and I guess you mentioned something positive as well, which is exciting in this pandemic that election administrators are coming up with alternative options and hopefully those will be made permanent and not just for this election and that can maybe increase access going forward in the electoral process.
Michelle: You know, I will say we have some advantages here in the U.S. Having laws like the ADA in place no doubt gives us somewhat of an advantage. But I also learn every time that we talk about what is being done in other countries to create access for people with disabilities. I think there are people all around the world who are coming up with really creative solutions and I’m like we should do that here. We like to think about ourselves as leading the way here, but I learn from what other countries are doing all the time. So I think that there is value in that and I love that we are having those kinds of conversations. I’d love to keep that going. I think we can all learn from each other and you’re right, there is a lot that you can do that doesn’t cost a thing. There is a lot you can do that costs very little. I always say it is amazing what you can achieve with some duct tape and traffic cones, to make a whole place more accessible. If you can prop a door open, you no longer have a door that is too heavy for the ADA. If you can put down a portable ramp you don’t have to pour cement to create a permanent ramp. If you can put up some traffic cones and a temporary sign, you can make accessible parking. It is amazing what you can do if you’re just creative and have a little bit of a budget for it. I’m so inspired sometimes when I hear about what they’re doing in other parts of the world to get creative and create access for voters with disabilities. It's really exciting to see people who are so dedicated to making sure everyone has their voice heard.
Virginia: Duct tape and traffic cones, that is a great place for us to end our conversation. And also, maybe highlighting the Americans with Disabilities Act is 30 years old this year. It was used as the basis for the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, in which over 94% of states around the world have ratified. So we do have these international standards on paper and we need to work towards implementing and enforcing them going forward to make sure that everyone has a voice in the election.
Michelle: Yes, absolutely. Traffic cones and duct tape, the perfect place to summarize the conversation for sure.
Virginia: Well thank you, Michelle!
Michelle: Thank you for having me!