September 27, 2023

39 years later, we’re still dealing with implementation of the VAEHA

On this day 39 years ago the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act (VAEHA) was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. This law, along with the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Voting Rights Act, the National Voter Registration Act, and the Help America Vote Act form the bedrock of the statutory freedom to vote. But laws are only as strong as the will to enforce them – legal protections that go unimplemented or fail to be implemented well do not serve voters with disabilities well.

The VAEHA was a huge step towards achieving the goal of making elections accessible and responsive to people’s needs. It required that states “shall assure that all polling places for Federal elections are accessible to handicapped and elderly voters,” and if this is not possible, that elderly and handicapped voters will “be assigned to an accessible polling place,” or “be provided with an alternative means for casting a ballot.” This law affirmed that living with a disability cannot be de facto disenfranchisement.

However, the requirements and accommodations laid out in this law, as well as those in the ADA, are often not met, leading to a persistent gap in voter participation rates between voters with disabilities and those without. In 2016, the gap between disabled and non-disabled voter participation was 6.3 percent. Fortunately, in 2020 and 2022, that gap narrowed to 3.6 percent. While this is an overall improvement, when you interrogate the data the outlook is a bit more grim. When adjusting for age, the disparity jumps to 10 percent. For people with cognitive and mobility impairments specifically, the gap widens to 13.4 and 13.1 percent, respectively, according to data from the Election Assistance Commission.

Furthermore, the relative improvement in turnout among voters with disabilities is largely attributable to a shift to mail-voting during the 2020 election, as more states moved to implement safer voting practices during the pandemic. The other side of this coin, however, is that the very practices that allowed voters to safely participate in the 2020 election — which were especially helpful for voters with disabilities — have been the target of many attempts to roll back voting access across the country.

In Texas, for example, a sweeping law passed in 2021 increased legal penalties and administrative burdens on volunteer voter assistants, in addition to complicating the mail-vote process. These complications ultimately led to unprecedented levels of ballot-rejection in 2022. And this isn’t unique to Texas. States across the country are considering restrictions to mail voting, as well.

In this environment, rigorous compliance with the ADA and VAEHA is more important than ever, as other voting options become more complicated and less accessible. Unfortunately, compliance with these laws is by no means universal.

A legal complaint in Los Angeles filed by federal prosecutors alleged that a survey of 250 voting centers in L.A. County found only a fraction were ADA compliant. A recent study found that 30% of polling places in Delaware were not ADA compliant. And nationally, there are countless communities that fail to meet their obligations under the ADA, leading to numerous lawsuits from disability advocates.

To be sure, there has been significant progress in access for people with disabilities since VAEHA was signed into law 39 years ago. But despite this progress, there is still much more work to be done in providing voting options for people with disabilities. It is incumbent on communities to ensure they are complying with their obligations under the ADA and VAEHA in the first place, so advocates do not have to go to court in the first place — itself a barrier to enforcement. States would also do well to adopt common-sense pro-voter policies that help all voters, but voter with disabilities in particular, participate in our democracy — like mail voting.

The first four decades of the VAEHA have made substantial progress, and with some luck, determination, and focus on implementation, we’ll close the participation gap between people with and without disabilities once and for all before the next four are up.