By Renee Schiavone
Voters with disabilities turn out at a high rate for elections but prefer to vote by mail rather than at the polls on accessible voting equipment according to a survey of 1,300 voting-age residents of Marin County.
The survey was conducted by Cal State East Bay Political Science Professor Elizabeth Bergman in fall 2013 at the request of Elaine Ginnold, Marin County Registrar of Voters. Funds for the survey came from a Help America Vote Act Section 261 accessibility grant through the California Secretary of State’s Office. The study, which cost $13,200, examined whether and how disability affects an individual’s ability to vote, questions not addressed in published work so far.
The Marin study found that disability by itself does not explain the variation in voter turnout figures between Marin, the state of California and the United States. Turnout is exceptionally high for people with disabilities in Marin (92 percent) compared with 56.8 percent nationally and 50.4 percent in California.
The study notes that turnout of Marin voters with disabilities would be similar to state and national statistics if disability alone prevented people from voting. An alternative explanation of the high Marin turnout is that California law permits a voter to request a mailed ballot, and the County lets voters know about that option. Other states restrict voting by mail by requiring a written excuse to get a ballot in the mail.
The survey also found that the presence of accessible voting machines at the polls has a limited impact on turnout of people with disabilities in Marin. Since 2006, an average of seven voters – and no more than 17 at any single election – have used the accessible voting machines at countywide elections, Ginnold said. The popularity of voting by mail could explain why the accessible machines are used so infrequently at the polls.
“If improving access to the ballot is the goal, then the availability of mailed balloting should be expanded,” Bergman said “… There are still obstacles to voting by mail in California election law, as well as virtually every state in the union, that limit the franchise for voters who prefer – and need – to vote this way.”
Placing accessible voting machines at each polling place is not an option – it’s the law. At least one machine must be available to provide voters with disabilities a way to vote privately and independently.
The Elections Office distributed the survey to 8,400 people with the cooperation of Marin disability service organizations that either handed them out in person or emailed an invitation with a link to the survey directly to their member lists. The Elections Office also mailed surveys to 5,000 voters over 80 years old. The overall response rate was 15 percent, with an online response rate of 10 percent and a paper response rate of 17 percent.