SC's Voters with Disabilities May Face a Dire Choice (And Not Just Who To Vote For)

Aug 19, 2020

Voters with disabilities have always faced a lot of obstacles, but they’ve also always had a choice – voting absentee.

Now, a combination of the coronavirus pandemic and the politicization of the U.S. Postal Service is forcing a different kind of choice onto disabled voters – do they risk going out among people to vote during a pandemic or risk having their votes not count?

For voters with disabilities, getting to a polling place can be a challenge. Now, thanks to a nasty combination of politics and a pandemic, their option to vote absentee is shaky too.
Credit Scott Morgan / South Carolina Public Radio

For voters like Brad Morris of Rock Hill, it’s a big risk.

“Because of my disabilities, I have trouble breathing,” Morris says. “If I were to get COVID-19, I expect to die.”

While a disability does not necessarily make a person more susceptible to a severe COVID-19 infection, some disabilities can increase the odds. People with limited mobility and those who cannot avoid coming into close contact with caregivers or family members – like Morris – are at higher risk for developing COVID problems, according to the CDC. So is anyone who is unable to effectively communicate symptoms of illness to others; and still others could have a disability as a result of an existing health condition, such as mobility limitations brought on by stroke, that would put that person at higher risk.

Because of this elevated risk, groups such as Protection & Advocacy for People with Disabilities Inc., a Columbia-based nonprofit known generally as P&A, strongly encourage absentee voting for disabled South Carolinians.

“We don’t want people going out to the polling places, as much as we can avoid that,” says Erin Haire, who oversees voting and outreach for P&A.

South Carolina voters who qualify to vote absentee have two options – mail-in voting or in-person absentee voting. The latter requires voters to drop ballots off at a designated location, often the county voter registration office. Haire says that P&A has reallocated funds originally intended to educate voters  with disabilities on how to use South Carolina’s new (and, she admits, much improved) voting machines, towards an education campaign about how to vote absentee-in-person.

“It’s a great option,” she says. It’s just that a lot of people don’t understand or know about it.

One advantage absentee-in-person offers, Haire says, is that locations are usually uncrowded. She’s voted absentee-in-person through an exemption offered to those working in an election-related capacity on Election Day, and says, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen one person.”

But while absentee-in-person is an option, it’s not a panacea. Some districts will, according to the state Election Commission, provide additional drop-off locations for in-person absentee ballots, but not all of them will. That puts many voters in the position of having to physically get to a central location in their county seat, which gets increasingly difficult for voters who have trouble getting places the farther from the county seat they live.

That can be especially troublesome in rural counties like Anderson, where Katy Smith is the director of voter registration and elections. Anderson has been working to fix its accessibility issues in general, following a visit from the U.S. Department of Justice to monitor ADA compliance. One of the issues for rural counties like Anderson is that voting places are often few and just as often not in government buildings.

“We vote in churches and schools,” Smith says.

Non-government sites are not subject to the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act except on election days. Smith says the owners and managers of these locations can be asked to upgrade to meet ADA compliance, but they’re not obligated.

This dynamic has forced the county to move some polling locations.

“You would be surprised at how many locations around your county and in your jurisdictions do not have van-accessible parking,” Smith says. “They may have handicapped parking, but that’s very different than having that access aisle.”

Anderson moved one longstanding polling location three miles away. It had been at a church with a gravel parking lot – not considered traversable ground for someone with mobility issues.

And while three miles might not sound like a big deal, it is for those who have to find a way to get there, Smith says.

Moving polling places can put extra strains on disabled voters no matter where they are, of course. In suburban West Columbia, Frank Coppell and his wife, Sherry, are the only two blind voters in their district. Frank describes himself as old-fashioned: “I like going to the polling place,” he says.

The poll used to be down the street. He used to walk to it. It’s since been moved, meaning Coppell has to get a ride.

He’s not thrilled about having to rely on others to get him to the polls. Just like he’s not thrilled to not have a secret ballot. As a blind voter, Coppell (who also is the outgoing president of the state chapter of the National Association for the Blind) needs an audio ballot – which, these days, he gets. But until about 14 years ago, someone had to read him the ballot and he would have to reveal his choices.

While Coppell can get the audio ballot now, he does say that poll workers are prone to mishandling the situation when he and his wife come in to vote. They often can’t find the headphones, for example, he says; and that kind of thing could make some voters (but not him) want to turn and leave without voting.

Chris Whitmire of the South Carolina Election Commission says that poll workers are all trained to help voters with disabilities, but often do not get a lot of practical experience with them – so many, after all, vote absentee.

But Coppell says that unless the state Legislature waives the witness requirement (as it did for the June primaries) for absentee ballots this time around, he’s back to relying on his children or a trusted friend to help him with what is supposed to be a secret ballot.

Coppell’s frustration with having to surrender privacy only compounds for visually disabled voters who might not have sons, daughters, and friends around.

“That ballot is not accessible for somebody who has a visual disability and lives alone,” Haire says.

Privacy issues aside, advocates like Haire say that the politicization and subsequent constraints placed on the operations of the U.S. Postal Service put votes at risk. P&A estimates that 20 percent of South Carolina residents have some form of disability, physical or psychological. When factored into the 3.3 million registered voters in the state, that adds up to about 660,000 voters with disabilities ranging from mobility issues to severe PTSD in veterans.

P&A’s response to the situation is education about alternatives like absentee-in-person voting and curbside voting. The state Election Commission, which Haire calls “a great ally” to P&A, is also trying to expand voting opportunities to voters with and without disabilities.

In a letter to state lawmakers (see below), the commission outlines six recommendations:

  • reinstate the State of Emergency protocol that allowed for no-excuse absentee voting in June;
  • allow voters to fill out absentee applications online and not have to print them out;
  • remove the witness requirement for absentee voters (Whitmire says that many people with disabilities are quarantined and may be unable to get a witness);
  • place drop boxes to collect absentee ballots rather than rely on one centralized location;
  • give vote counters more time to process absentee ballots;
  • and move curbside voting to designated locations for qualified (i.e., disabled) voters, rather than having that option at all existing polling places.

Whitmire also says that having dedicated curbside locations only will allow voters with disabilities to get through voting without having to wait behind unqualified voters who don’t realize they can’t do that.

“Unqualified voters flood the curbside voting process,” Whitmire says. “They see it happening and go, “I can pull up here or get in this line of cars … and not have to go in the polling place. In reality, they’re not qualified. And that takes away from the people who need it.”

In July, the state General Assembly punted the decision to allow no-excuse absentee voting for the November general election. Members are expected to return in early September to decide what to do about voting in the state.

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 3.

A letter from the Executive Director of the S.C. Elections Commission to the leaders of the General Assembly

Scott Morgan is the Upstate Multimedia Reporter for South Carolina Public Radio. Follow Scott on Twitter @ByScottMorgan. And follow South Carolina Public Radio @SCPublicRadio, or on Facebook.