Voter turnout among people with disabilities — a potentially powerful voting bloc, though one that often goes unnoticed — has long lagged behind turnout among other voters, and continued to do so in 2018, according to a new analysis from Rutgers University.

How powerful is that bloc, and how sizable is the gap? If turnout was the same for voters with and without disabilities, 2.35 million more ballots would have been cast nationwide in the 2018 midterm election.

It’s a result, experts said, of continued obstacles for voters with disabilities and a sense that elected officials don’t value them as a voting bloc.

The turnout gap has been persistent: While turnout increased last fall for voters with disabilities, it was outpaced by rising turnout overall, the Rutgers professors found by examining Census Bureau data. The turnout gap between voters with and without disabilities grew from 1.3 percentage points to 4.7 percentage points.

It’s a gap that politicians should pay attention to, said Lisa Schur, one of the two professors at the Program for Disability Research at the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations who coauthored the report. Overall, they found, about one in five voters either has a disability or lives with someone who does.

“That’s room for politicians and candidates,” she said, “if they could genuinely reach out to people with disabilities and really make that a focus.”

Why a turnout gap persists

According to the Census Bureau data, 65.7 percent of people with disabilities were registered to vote in the 2018 election, compared with 67.1 percent of people without disabilities.

But when it came time to vote, the turnout gap was larger.

Seventy-five percent of registered voters with disabilities voted, compared with 80.6 percent for other voters.

Experts pointed to a variety of reasons for the gaps, including voters’ belief that politicians don’t care about them and systemic barriers such as voting machines that are inaccessible.

Many polling places are inaccessible for people with mobility issues — in fact, Philly is under a federal consent decree over accessibility of polling places — and even then, advocates said they often hear from voters about problems such as poll workers not setting up portable ramps or not knowing how to adjust voting machines to make them accessible. One woman in a wheelchair told advocates she worked the polls in this year’s primary election — but the bathrooms weren’t accessible, so she had to go home at times during the day.

As a result, study coauthor Douglas Kruse said, “it sends a message that you’re not very welcome here, and that can reinforce the idea that the government is not being very responsive to you.”

Faced with additional barriers, voters with disabilities may feel embarrassed when they have to request assistance to cast a ballot. The attention can feel like a spotlight, especially when there are other voters waiting to use the machines in high-turnout elections, said Fran Fulton, a longtime activist who helped bring the polling place accessibility lawsuit that led to the consent decree.

“You feel all eyes on you,” she said. “It’s a feeling you get, you’re being watched. You know, ‘What’s taking her so long?’”

As a result, Fulton said, “people still have a certain amount of ‘fear’ that they’re not going to be able to get there, [and] when they get there they may not be treated kindly.”

People with disabilities might also feel like their votes don’t matter, said Schur and Kruse. The Rutgers professors also found in previous research that people with disabilities feel ignored by politicians.

That’s grounded in some real experience, seeing candidates pledge certain positions and actions that they don’t fulfill, said Thomas H. Earle, the head of Liberty Resources, the support and advocacy group that is the Philadelphia region’s Center for Independent Living.

“We see that at the local, state, and federal level,” he said. “So I understand that frustration and have experienced it, where elected officials will not support our work or don’t view it as a priority.”

Thomas H. Earle, CEO of Liberty Resources Inc., stands in front of a sign in his Center City office with a quotation from legendary disabilities advocate Justin Dart Jr.: “Vote as if your life depends on it, because it does.”
ANTHONY PEZZOTTI / Staff Photographer
Thomas H. Earle, CEO of Liberty Resources Inc., stands in front of a sign in his Center City office with a quotation from legendary disabilities advocate Justin Dart Jr.: “Vote as if your life depends on it, because it does.”

Turnout varies across groups, and people with disabilities might also fall into groups that traditionally have lower turnout rates, such as those with lower levels of employment and education.

And people with disabilities are more socially isolated, Schur and Kruse said. With weaker social networks, they said, voters with disabilities have fewer people talking to them about politics and their vote.

How to be heard

While voters with disabilities and their family and friends are theoretically a powerful voting bloc — by sheer numbers alone — they are not always seen as such.

One difficulty, experts and advocates said, is that disability status is not listed in voter rolls and is often not part of polling data. Elected officials on paper represent all their constituents, but they in particular care about the interests of their voters; they can tell which racial and ethnic groups, which age groups, which neighborhoods vote for them.

Kruse said that better data should be collected, including in exit polling on Election Day.

What’s clear, Schur and Kruse said, is that people with disabilities are a sizable portion of the electorate, and the analysis is a reminder of their potential political power, in 2020 and beyond.

Gabe Labella, a staff lawyer at Disability Rights Pennsylvania, said people with disabilities need to engage regularly with politicians, making themselves impossible to ignore.

“What we need to do — and we try, and we’re going to keep doing it — is telling people with disabilities that you have to let your voice be heard,” she said.

People with disabilities have concerns about housing, transportation, health care — any number of issues. Whatever the concern, Labella said, bring it up.

And if you already have? Do it again.

“Raise your issue with your legislators,” she said. “Over and over again.”

Until, she said, people with disabilities are seen, heard and recognized for the large community that they are.

“We’ve come a long way,” she said, “but we still have a long way to go.”