Former California Secretary of State Debra Bowen spoke at the LMU panel
Photo by Chris Flynn / Loyola Marymount University

By Gary Walker

About 36 hours before the fanfare of the Democratic presidential debates, Loyola Marymount University’s new Playa Vista Campus hosted a panel of elections experts digging into concerns about voter suppression ahead of the 2020 Presidential Election.

Voter suppression tactics such as gerrymandering and voter ID laws are known to target low-income, minority and young voters, but one of the leading populations of concern — and one that gets little press coverage — is people with disabilities.

People with some sort of disability accounted for 19% of likely voters in an October 2018 poll by the Coelho Center at Loyola Law School. More likely voters with disabilities identified as Republicans (45%) than Democrats (39%), but were more likely to vote Democratic on a generic congressional ballot. They were also more likely to be low-income renters and more likely to push for congressional action on issues related to Social Security, Medicare and overall health care policy.

On election day in 2016, an analysis by the Government Accountability Office found that almost two-thirds of 137 inspected polling places that had at least one impediment to disabled voters, including steep wheelchair ramps and voting booths that were not wheelchair accessible.

State officials in Georgia have invoked the Americans with Disabilities Act to close down polling places in majority African-American neighborhoods deemed not compliant with ADA regulations, said former CNN anchor Carol Costello, who hosted the university’s “Breaking Barriers to Voting: An Ongoing Advocacy” panel. News reporting halted plans for those closures.

“Clearly the intent was not only to disenfranchise disabled voters but also African-American voters who lived in and around that area,” said Kathay Feng, national redistricting director for the advocacy group Common Cause.

Loyola Law School Dean Michael Waterstone said the right to vote is “preservative” of all other rights, civil
and political, “but the reality is we still have challenges.”

In California, elections officials review state databases to confirm the residency and attempt to contact voters who have not participated in several election cycles before considering removal from voter registration lists.

“My framework was always to allow any eligible voter to register easily, allow registered voters an easy way to cast a ballot, and we want to have all votes counted as they are cast,” said former California Secretary of State Debra Bowen.