Voting restrictions opposed by disability groups

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By HOPE O’DELL
Capital News Service

LANSING –– For voters with disabilities, there are difficulties at every step of casting their ballots, said Rachel Prevatt, the voter engagement specialist at Disability Rights Michigan. 

That starts with registration, which can be difficult when trying to get to a clerk’s office, being able to physically fill out a form or even being able to view the form, she said. 

“Some of the biggest issues that we hear about are related to cultural competency and disability sensitivity issues,” she said. “Poll volunteers often aren’t necessarily trained specifically on disability issues. So they’re not always equipped to help folks.”

That’s where absentee and mail-in voting can help, Prevatt said. 

According to Disability Rights Michigan, in 2020, voter turnout for disabled people was at 62%, up 6 percentage points compared with 2016. That’s a larger increase than what was seen in voting by the general public, which was up by 5 points. 

In 2018, Michigan voters passed Proposal 3, which allowed people to register and vote the same day, request absentee ballots with giving a reason and cast straight-ticket ballots for all of a party’s nominees. That broadly increased access to the vote. 

“So we saw outcomes that would suggest the expanded absentee access absolutely does increase turnout for voters with disabilities,” Prevat said. 

Across the country, efforts are being made to restrict access to absentee and mail-in ballots, especially in states with Republican governors, like Texas, according to Pew Charitable Trust. 

As the 2022 midterm elections loom, two bills making their way through the Michigan Legislature would put more requirements in place to get an absentee ballot, which could disproportionately affect disabled voters, advocates and some politicians say. 

One bill would require physical signatures on absentee ballot applications. 

Prevatt said that’s concerning because some may not be able to physically write their signature, and it can provide difficulties for those who can too. 

“Some people will be able to sign a signature, but it won’t necessarily be consistent,” she said. “They might have a motor-related disability that would prevent them from consistently signing the same way or they might have a disability that flares.” 

Rep. Andrew Beeler, R-Fort Gratiot, is the chief sponsor of the proposal. Cosponsors include GOP Reps. Steve Carra of Three Rivers, Andrew Fink of Adams Township, Sue Allor of Wolverine, Pat Outman of Six Lakes and Robert Bezotte of Howell.

Jackie Beaudry, the second-vice president of the Michigan Association of Municipal Clerks, said disabled voters can currently apply online and answer questions to verify their identity. 

Beaudry, who is also the city clerk for Ann Arbor, said the association has not taken a stance on the bill. 

“But generally, clerks would support making it easier for access to absentee ballots, not harder,” she said. 

Democratic Rep. Matt Koleszar of Plymouth is the minority vice chair of the House Elections and Ethics Committee. He opposes the bill. 

“In my opinion, it deliberately targets disabled voters,” he said. “And that’s wrong.” 

The other pending bill, sponsored by Rep. Julie Calley, R-Portland, would prohibit clerks and the Secretary of State’s office from sending out unsolicited absentee ballot applications..

Of the more than 5.5 million ballots cast in 2020, 3.5 million were absentee, according to the Secretary of State’s office. 

According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, in 2020 only 26% of disabled voters nationwide voted in person. 

“We had more Michiganders than ever participating in the process, which is so important to get an accurate representation of what Michigan wants to see happen,” Koleszar said. “So I thought it was great, and there’s no reason not to do it.”

Critics of one or both of the bills include the League of Conservation Voters, American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, League of Women Voters and Voters Not Politicians.

Koleszar said he expects Democratic Gov. gretchen Whitmer to veto the bills if they pass the House and Senate.