Preparing Youth with Disabilities to Vote; Leave No Voter Behind
The transition period from childhood to adulthood can be a stressful, confusing, overwhelming, and exciting time for all youth and their families. There is so much planning and preparation to be done and it can be difficult to ensure children are prepared for adulthood. One of the most significant landmarks on this path is the 18th birthday, marking legal adulthood and the right to vote. For Michigan youth who receive special education services, this period includes formal Transition Planning, beginning no later than 16 and continuing until students transition or age out of special education at 26. During this time, schools are required to work with students, families, their supports and service providers, to plan for their post-graduation life.
An area that is sometimes overlooked in preparing youth for adulthood, or even assumed unnecessary for youth with disabilities, is voter education. In Michigan, there are no limits on the right to vote based on disability. We must prepare all of Michigan’s children for the responsibility of voting and provide all children with the tools necessary to understand and participate in government.
Michigan polling places are required to have accessible voting machines, known as Voter Assist Terminals (VATs), to assist voters in completing their ballot. These machines should be set up, turned on, and prepared for use when polls open, and should remain accessible until polls close. These machines are legally required to ensure the right of people with disabilities to vote privately and independently. VATs increase accessibility by allowing ballots to be read aloud to a voter over headphones; allowing voters to complete their ballots using a remote-control device or their own assistive technology, such a as sip and puff device; and providing failsafe warnings to prevent a voter from over- or under-voting.
There are still real barriers to private and independent voting for Michiganders with disabilities, both in-person and absentee. We continue to see barriers in basic physical accessibility, barriers in how absentee ballots are submitted, and barriers in the form of systemic and individual ableism. However, VATs are a vital step toward a universal in-person voting system that can be used by all voters. We encourage our constituents and all Michiganders to contact their municipal clerk if they want to learn more about their local VATs.
What do we know about young voters with disabilities?
Self-Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE) is a national disability self-advocacy organization that conducts regular surveys and publishes reports on the experiences of voters with disabilities. SABE’s 2020 GoVoter report indicates that voters aged 18-25 saw the most substantial increase in turnout among voters with disabilities from 2016 to 2020. Younger voters also included a higher percentage of voters with guardians. Most first-time voters surveyed were women and under 26. These facts may suggest a possible enduring change in voter turnout for people with disabilities. More young people with disabilities are engaging in voting and more are exercising that right even under a legal guardianship. Increased turnout also means increased visibility as participants in our communities. Visibility that challenges assumptions about disability and providing more visible role models to children with disabilities.
What should I know as a child advocate, parent, and/or citizen to support voter education, rights, and accessibility?
- People with disabilities are the best source of information on how to assist them and asking is better than guessing. Presume competence. You cannot tell what a person’s needs and limitations are by looking at them. Every adult with a disability is fully an adult and should be communicated with directly, with dignity and respect. The best way to be an ally to people with disabilities is to listen to them, help amplify their voices, and help them achieve their goals, without judgement or paternalism.
- Nothing about a person’s disability, including guardianship and/or involuntary treatment, changes their right to vote in the state of Michigan. A guardian cannot prevent a ward from voting, vote on behalf of a ward, or tell a ward who/what to vote for. No person other than a voter should ever sign in a place designated for a voter signature, even if they are a guardian or have power of attorney.
- People with disabilities have the right to vote in-person at their assigned polling location and they have the right for that polling location to be accessible to them.
- Voters can request to use a Voter Assist Terminal and should be accommodated without having to disclose a disability or provide justification.
- Voters have the right to request assistance voting from an election worker or another person they have chosen (except: your employer/supervisor, or your union representative). Voters can also choose to vote independently regardless of their perceived disability or needs. Voters should never be pressured to accept assistance from someone they have not chosen.
- One of the greatest areas Disability Rights Michigan (DRM) has identified for improving experiences and accessibility for voters with disabilities is in election worker recruitment and training. We encourage people with disabilities and people willing to act as informed disability allies to volunteer as election workers.
As Michigan’s federally mandated, state-appointed protection and advocacy agency, Disability Rights Michigan (DRM) s committed to advocating for the voting rights of Michiganders with disabilities. If you have a question or need assistance regarding the rights of voters with disabilities, we can help. DRM is currently working to develop training materials for election workers supporting voters with disabilities, accessible multi-media voter guides, and voter advocacy coalitions. Share your interest in these issues by contacting us at https://www.drmich.org/
Rachel Prevatt is Disability Rights Michigan’s (DRM) Voter Engagement Specialist, working to ensure that Michigan voters with disabilities are informed, empowered, and able to exercise their voting rights. She can be reached at RPrevatt@drmich.org.