Election 2020: Interview with DRM's Voting Access Fellow

Posted on October 22, 2020

Rick: John, the election is two weeks from today - I can't tell you how much I appreciate your work with us this election season!

John: Thanks, I've enjoyed it a lot. People are definitely excited about this election. It has been a sincere privilege to connect and partner with people with disabilities and their allies across the state to support their efforts to exercise one of our most fundamental rights.

Rick: Can you share a bit about your experiences with voting rights and access issues and people with disabilities?

John: Sure. Back in 2008 I was living in Alabama and volunteered with the Alabama P&A and People First of Alabama supporting the efforts of self-advocates and their allies to coordinate voting engagement work. It was a great partnership and we approached the work from a variety of angles using SABE (Self-Advocates Becoming Empowered) resources and the energy of the self-advocates during that presidential election. As a person with a disability, I have lived experience that lends some perspective on access issues, and at the same time disability as a social construct is an individual experience … a line from the musical Hamilton comes to mind, “Talk less, listen more …”

Rick: That was a major election - it had a lot of the same high energy and interest that we're seeing this year...

John: Definitely, there was a lot of passion and energy back in 2008, whether you were coming from the left, middle or right of the political spectrum. We had a great time engaging with and reflecting that energy to help our friends and neighbors use their voice. My personal experience has been that the energy and interest surrounding this election is HUGE. It has been non-stop connecting with voters who are fired-up about getting reliable information about voting and the issues. Of course, circumstances are very different these days with the pandemic and technology, and so we’ve done a good job engaging our community partners to connect with people with disabilities across the state through the Internet.

The COVID situation raises a lot of questions around how people can get involved, safely. This part of every conversation we’ve had around voting access and the issues this year. Given the circumstances, reaching voters living in more rural areas has been a challenge but the energy and involvement of the disability community has really energized their friends and neighbors to get more involved in the political process.

Rick: You mentioned community partners…

John: Yes, the collaboration between community partners has been the key to all of this. With our community partners, we’ve had the opportunity to reach a wide spectrum of the voting population, people who identify with the disability community and those that do not. With partners such as the self-advocates of SUFU Maine, State of Maine, Maine DD Council, Statewide Coordinating Council, State Independent Living Council, Maine Parent Federation, Alpha One and many other, too many to list here, larger and smaller provider organizations across the state, we’ve been able to connect not only with the ID/DD community but the mental health community, people experiencing homelessness, people who are hearing and visually-impaired, and even seniors who may or may not identify with the disability community. Our work with our community partners has been essential to our efforts to connect with a diverse and wide spectrum of the voting age population.

Rick: What are the COVID-related election themes you're seeing this year?

John: One big issue, and touching again on working with community partners, is the impact on access to voting for people in long-term care facilities. In a normal election year, under Maine law the local town clerks would be setting up absentee voting activities right there in the nursing homes and other long-term care settings. This year the clerks can't go in to the facilities, so the challenge falls on the nursing home staff to make sure that residents are able to access the right to participate. DRM partnered with the Long-term Care Ombudsman’s Office and Maine AARP to conduct an online workshop for nursing home and other long-term care staff to educate them on the need to support resident voting rights and provide support to people. We've heard a lot from people in follow up to that.

Rick: We’re hearing a lot of reports about increased voter turnout this year – why do you think voters with disabilities are getting more involved in this election?

John: The record-breaking voter turnout we’ve experienced this year and even greater interest and involvement from people with disabilities across the spectrum has been supported to a great degree by more accessible voting systems. We’ve had a great response to the state’s new accessible absentee voting system, allowing voters with and without disabilities to request and track the status of their absentee ballots. In particular, we’ve experienced a lot of excitement about and a good response to the state’s new electronic absentee ballot. This allows people with print disabilities to securely cast their ballots independently and privately through their computers. And COVID is just another in a long list of reasons why voters from across generations, disabled or non-disabled, benefit from the state’s accessible mail-in and electronic absentee voting system. Expanding accessible voting options for all voters to safely and securely access their right to vote and have their voices heard in their communities.

Maine is ahead of many others states in this regard and my hope is that the overwhelmingly positive response we’ve had to the improved accessibility of the absentee ballot will energize more movement in that direction, such as implementing online voter registration in Maine.

Another somewhat COVID-related theme and a sign of the times is the flood of election-related information and messaging we’ve all been experiencing.

Though our online voting 101 workshops, we’ve had a lot of conversation with participants about the challenge of easily identifying reliable information about voting and the issues that is accessible to them. Accessing reliable information online is certainly a challenge but it also presents enormous potential for outreach, and we’ve put a lot of energy into leveraging social media to support peer-to-peer connection to get out the vote. What’s really been exciting is the interest in and conversations with our workshop participants about reach out to their peers, the candidates, and the wider community to learn about and discuss the issues, and other ways of getting involved in and having a voice in their communities outside of election season.

Contact us at VotingAccess2020@drme.org or Disability Rights Maine’s Voting Hotline (800.452.1948) with questions or concerns regarding voting in Maine.

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