High Youth Voter Turnout in 2012 Election! What About People with Disabilities?

A young foot canvasser registers a young man to vote.Leading up to Tuesday’s election, pundits and political analysts warned the nation about a possible “enthusiasm gap” among young voters ages 18 to 29. As the post-election dust settles, we have learned this gap was a myth.

“The role young people would play during this election has been a major question in American politics for over a year, and it seems the answer is that they have been as big a force at the polls in 2012 as in 2008,” said Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).

Based on survey and exit poll data, CIRCLE estimates that 22 to 23 million young voters went to the polls. That’s roughly 50% turnout among young voters. By the time the last vote was cast this year, 18- to 29-year-olds made up nearly one-fifth of the entire electorate nationwide!

“Confounding almost all predictions, the youth vote held up in 2012 and yet again was the deciding factor in determining which candidate was elected President of the United States,” said Levine. “Young people are energized and committed voters. Youth turnout of around 50% is the ‘new normal’ for presidential elections. Considering that there are 46 million people between 18 and 29, this level of turnout makes them an essential political bloc.”

CIRCLE’s data show that youth voter turnout has steadily increased since 1996, when it was as low as 37%. In the 2008 presidential election, 52% of 18- to 29-year-olds voted.

Rock the Vote (RTV), a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to engaging young voters, determined that “at least 80 electoral votes, and the election, were decided by young people.”

“Young people proved yet again, that they are a powerful force in our country’s democracy. Their impact rivaled that of 2008; they showed up and played a major role in picking our President,” RTV president Heather Smith said in a statement on election night.

But the data we haven’t seen yet for this election will tell us the story of voter participation among youth and adults with disabilities. Historically, people with disabilities have been less likely to vote than people without disabilities. In July 2012,Social Science Quarterly published “Sidelined or Mainstreamed? Political Participation and Attitudes of People with Disabilities in the United States.” This article’s authors found that “citizens with disabilities were less likely than nondisabled citizens to report voting in the 2008 and 2010 elections…Their overall voting rate was 7.2 percentage points lower than that of people without disabilities in 2008, and 3.1 percent percentage points lower in 2010.”

A number of barriers can make it challenging for people with disabilities to get from their homes to the ballot box. Unfortunately, 22 years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, some of these barriers are still physical ones. According to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), in 2008, polling places had improved in accessibility since 2004 but still needed significant work to become fully accessible. The GAO found that only one in four polling places had no impediments for voters with disabilities from the parking areas to the voting areas. Nearly half of polling places had potential impediments but offered curbside voting. And over one in four had potential impediments but no curbside voting. That means that half of all polling places could not get all voters from the parking area to the inside voting area.

The GAO report also found that while almost all polling places had accessible—typically electronic—voting machines, nearly half of all polling places “had an accessible voting system that could pose a challenge to certain voters with disabilities, such as voting stations that were not arranged to accommodate voters using wheelchairs.”

Another barrier is public perception of people with disabilities, particularly people with intellectual disabilities and serious mental health needs. In 2008, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law and the National Disability Rights Network released “Vote. It’s Your Right: A Guide to Voting Rights of People with Mental Disabilities.” This guide notes that “people with mental disabilities sometimes lose the right to vote because of state voter-competence laws or because election officials, poll workers, or service providers improperly impose their own voter-competence requirements.” This guide goes on to outline the rights of people with disabilities and how they can self-advocate in the face of barriers to the ballot box.

With one in five people with disabilities in the United States population, it stands to reason that millions of voters with disabilities participated in the 2012 election. But how many? Disability status is not captured in exit polls, so it is difficult to know how many people with disabilities turned out to vote and how they voted. While an important constituency, people with disabilities still are not viewed as a “voting bloc.” This information is important to the disability community, the political process, and our country because it can help paint a more accurate picture of the electorate and influence public policy in a positive way moving forward. Keep an eye out! More and more disability and non-disability organizations are working not just on the issue of accessibility at the polls but also on the visibility and “countability” of youth and adults with disabilities at the polls.

Voting is a key part of our responsibility as citizens in a democracy. As they prepare to transition to adulthood, all young people, including those with disabilities, need opportunities to learn about their civic rights and responsibilities – including the importance and process of voting.

Are you or do you know a registered voter with a disability who participated in the 2012 election? Share your story with the National Council on Disability and the Disability Rights Network in a brief, open-ended online survey.

Related Resources:

By Eric Cline, Program Coordinator, National Collaborative on Workforce & Disability for Youth at the Institute for Educational Leadership’s Center for Workforce Development.

About NCWD Youth

NCWD/Youth works to ensure that transition age youth are provided full access to high quality services in integrated settings to gain education, employment, and independent living.

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