(State Dept./ D. Thompson)

The whole point of democratic elections is that everybody gets to vote. With its large and diverse population, the U.S. has to make constant and ongoing efforts to address any obstacle that keeps eligible voters from voting.

That includes looking out for the voting rights of Americans with disabilities.

In the 2012 elections, 15.6 million Americans with disabilities voted, according to Helena Berger, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities, an advocacy group. That total is more than the U.S. Latino and Asian vote combined, she said.

“What we’re telling those running for office is, ‘The disability vote counts. What you need to do is pay attention and advocate for our issues. If you do, you’ll get our vote, and our vote can make a difference,'” says Berger, whose association has a program called REVUP that aims to register more people with disabilities.

Several laws protect the voting rights of Americans with disabilities:

  • The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984 requires that all polling places used in federal elections be accessible to the disabled and the elderly or an alternate means of voting must be provided.
  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 likewise covers polling places, with requirements for parking, drop-off areas, and entryways. The Justice Department provides a checklist to help polling places comply with ADA guidelines.
  • The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 requires that offices where people with disabilities go for public assistance also be able to register them as voters.
  • The Help America Vote Act of 2002 established 57 “Protection and Advocacy” agencies throughout the U.S. to ensure polling places offer auxiliary voting aids such as large print screens and ballots for people with low vision; Braille for the blind and interpreters for deaf people.

Understanding the capabilities of updated voting machines is an important accessibility issue for voters and poll workers, says Michelle Bishop of the National Disability Rights Network, the membership organizations for protection and advocacy agencies. “Training voters and training poll workers could make a huge difference in how smoothly things run on Election Day,” she said.

“It continues to be really important to Americans to be able to participate in the process in that really traditional way of going to their polling place on Election Day,” Bishop said. “It’s such a big part of being an American.”