Voting Access a Work in Progress for People with Disabilities

Posted on September 21, 2021

Disability rights activist Justin Dart once said, “vote as if your life depends on it because it does.” Americans have been fighting for their right to vote since the founding of this country. From the elimination of literacy tests and poll taxes, to the passage of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, to the 26th Amendment lowering the voting age, the battle for equality at the voting booth continues and people with disabilities still to face barriers to the electoral process. To this end, Disability Rights Maine (DRM) advocates for equal and independent voting access to people with disabilities.

Justin Dart’s call to vote rings true for many people with disabilities as using your voice to vote is a way to push for legislation that affects you. It took the United States Congress until 1990 to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the most sweeping civil rights law in the country, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability for individuals in employment, state and local government, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications.[1] Title II of the ADA requires state and local governments to ensure that people with disabilities have a full and equal opportunity to vote.[2] But despite the ADA’s clear national mandate for the elimination of discrimination that has been the law for 31 years, we are still fighting for people with disabilities to have the ability to vote independently.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) was the first voting rights law to acknowledge that people with disabilities have the right to equal access to the electoral process. The VRA allowed for people with disabilities to receive assistance from a person of the voter’s choice. In addition, it prohibited literacy and education requirements to vote. [3] In 1984, the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984 was passed, requiring polling places to be accessible on Election Day, requiring them to have an alternate mode of voting for those who can’t physically access the polls. Although these laws improve voting access for people with disabilities, barriers remain to accessing voting independently, leading to low turnout among people with disabilities.

Prior to 2001, people under guardianship for reasons of mental illness in Maine were prohibited from registering to vote or voting under Article II, Section 1 of the Maine Constitution.[4] Under this provision, individuals automatically lost their right to vote once they were put under guardianship, without any notice. The Disability Rights Center, now Disability Rights Maine, filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Maine on behalf of itself and three plaintiffs, in a case known as Doe v. Rowe,[5] to challenge this discriminatory provision and ensure that people under guardianship were no longer automatically disenfranchised. In a seminal decision, the Court found in the plaintiffs’ favor and struck down the disenfranchising provision, holding that it violated the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the United States Constitution, the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Doe v. Rowe protects individuals in Maine, but many states still have similar barriers to voting for people under guardianship today.

Although the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) was signed in 2002, requiring polling locations to have one accessible voting system for individuals, and “must provide the same opportunity for access and participation, including privacy and independence, that other voters receive,”[6] private and independent voting was an issue for voters in Maine with print disabilities in the 2020 election. We were made aware that some accessible voting machines were not in an independent location that keep the individuals vote private. Accessible voting machines were in the open, where people can walk behind the machine and see what the individual is doing with their ballot, not allowing for an independent and private vote. In the midst of the pandemic, many individuals did not wish to go to the polls for fear of contracting the coronavirus. However, because Maine did not have an accessible absentee ballot option, people who are blind or have other print disabilities faced the untenable choice of risking their health and voting at the polls or giving up their right to vote independently and privately by absentee ballot. Disability Rights Maine filed an emergency lawsuit seeking immediate relief on behalf of four blind clients to require the State of Maine to create an accessible absentee ballot system. As a result of a settlement agreement negotiated by Disability Rights Maine, the State of Maine created an online accessible absentee ballot system to ensure that all people with print disabilities have the option to vote safely and independently in the 2020 election and beyond. [7]

There are many reasons for why people with disabilities do not vote. For some, the reasons are the same as for people without disabilities: does my vote count? Does my government care about me? What will politicians do for me? For others, the barrier(s) to voting are simply too much to overcome. However, we need only look to advancements in rights for people with disabilities over the past 60 years to see the progress we have made towards equity and inclusion at the polls. Although there is still work to be done, we must never forget – Your vote is your voice.

Don’t forget election day is on Tuesday November 2, 2021. If you do not think you will be able to make it to the polls, prepare ahead of time and request an absentee ballot through the Maine Secretary of State’s website . Or, you can call your Town Clerk and ask them to mail you an absentee ballot application right to your house. Learn more about the ballot measure for this year’s referendum here:

[1] 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101-12213, online at
[2] See United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, The Americans with Disabilities Act and Other Federal Laws Protecting the Rights of Voters with Disabilities (September, 1994), online at
[4] Doe v. Rowe, 156 F.Supp.2d 35 (D. Me. 2001), online at
[5] Doe v. Rowe, 156 F.Supp.2d 35 (D. Me. 2001), online at

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