Gabe Labella, Disability Rights Pennsylvania staff attorney Gabe Labella, Disability Rights Pennsylvania

Voting is a fundamental right, privilege and duty. People with disabilities, however, may find themselves excluded from voting. People with physical disabilities, including those who use wheelchairs and walkers, may be unable to vote at their local polling places on Election Day due to physical barriers precluding them from participating in local voting where they can meet their neighbors and polling officials and participate in civic life. People with intellectual or mental health disabilities may be excluded from voting because of poll workers’ prejudice and ignorance as to their capabilities or misunderstanding about the law. People with sensory disabilities may be unable to fully participate in the voting process due to communication barriers, infringing on their right to vote privately and independently. Transportation barriers and poll workers who are unfamiliar with the accessible features on voting equipment make it more difficult for people with disabilities to vote.

Pennsylvania should be a leader in expanding access to all people to exercise their guaranteed right to vote. Over the last year, our commonwealth has seen more serious, bipartisan conversation than it has in a generation on modernizing the election code, enhancing election security, and offering all voters more convenient and modern options for participation. Adopting more inclusive rules for absentee voting is an essential part of those reforms.

Currently, the Pennsylvania Constitution Article VII Section 14 requires the General Assembly to provide for absentee voting for certain enumerated categories of voters. A person may vote by absentee ballot only if they will be absent from their municipality on Election Day due to work, college, vacation or cannot vote at their polling place due to illness, physical disability, observance of a religious holiday or Election Day duties.

The Pennsylvania Election Code, which has not been updated for decades, sets forth confusing and overall restrictive rules for absentee voting. All voters must comply with various timelines to request and submit ballots ahead of Election Day. Voters who may not be able to get to their polling place due to illness or disability-related complications have to predict that far in advance to comply with the timelines. Voters with disabilities must disclose their disability on the application to participate in absentee voting.

For a person who experiences an unexpected illness or disability-related complications on or near Election Day, the barriers to obtaining a “last minute” emergency absentee ballot are virtually insurmountable. After  5 p.m. on the Friday before Election Day, the only way to obtain an absentee ballot is to complete an application, have it notarized, file it with the County Board of Elections, and then once approved, file the completed ballot with the Court of Common Pleas in the county where one is registered to vote. It is difficult to understand how a voter could accomplish all that if they are too sick or physically unable to get to their polling location.  While the rules allow a person to designate in writing a representative to deliver the ballot from the county to the voter and then to the Court, the process is still unnecessarily onerous.

Electoral reform that permits “no excuse absentee ballots” or “optional vote by mail” would benefit many populations who have difficulty getting to a polling place, including people with disabilities, the elderly, shift workers, first responders and medical professionals. Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia have already adopted these more permissive and inclusive approaches. Three states have adopted a system in which all voting is done by mail and registered voters are mailed a ballot automatically. Voting systems that do not require excuses for absentee balloting are linked to significantly higher turnout among all voters and in particular voters with disabilities.

Recently, a package of voting modernization bills has been introduced in the Pennsylvania Senate.  The package includes bills that address no excuse absentee ballots, the establishment of vote center, curbside voting, consolidation of small precincts, and elimination of straight party voting, to name a few.

S.B. 411 proposes to amend Section 14 of Article VII to state that absentee ballots should be available to anyone who for any reason is absent from their municipality on Election Day. This amendment is too restrictive and misses the mark. Absence from the municipality would still be required for any absentee ballot, and, importantly, it would strip current constitutional guarantees for individuals to vote absentee due to physical disabilities or illness.

The consensus of the advocacy community is that a constitutional amendment is not necessary to enact reform, as the Pennsylvania General Assembly is able to expand access to voting beyond the floor of protections provided in the state constitution. The acting Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of State concurs that such reforms can be enacted through legislation without a constitutional amendment. A statutory approach would allow these reforms to be in place before the 2020 presidential election. The reforms should permit no excuse balloting and make obtaining a last minute ballot much easier.

Another important reform must be made to absentee balloting in Pennsylvania. Currently, blind, low vision and other print-disabled voters must go to a polling location if they wish to vote privately and independently, as the absentee ballot is available only in paper form. Nondisabled voters can vote by absentee ballot independently at home, work or other convenient location whereas voters with disabilities cannot. This is unequal access to the ballot. Pennsylvania needs to implement an accessible electronic ballot delivery system, in which a ballot is delivered to the voter’s computer, where it can be read and completed with screen-reading software and printed for submission. There are a number of accessible electronic delivery systems available. By implementing such a system Pennsylvania would be providing these voters with the opportunity to vote privately and independently that is equal to the opportunity provided voters without disabilities.

Collectively, voting modernization bills must ensure that voters with disabilities are provided the opportunity to exercise their right to vote that is equal to the opportunity provided voters without disabilities in accordance with federal law.

Gabe Labella is a staff attorney and project director for Protection and Advocacy for Voter Access at Disability Rights Pennsylvania (DRP), an independent, statewide, nonprofit corporation designated as the federally mandated protection and advocacy agency in our commonwealth. DRP is part of a national network of disability rights nonprofit organizations that protect and advocate for the rights of children and adults with disabilities. Contact her at glabella@disabilityrightspa.org.