What is enfranchisement and what laws protect the rights of people with disabilities to vote?

To enfranchise means to give full privileges of citizenship, especially the right to vote. The right to vote is one of the most fundamental rights in the US and a cornerstone of our democracy. Today, to vote in a presidential election a person must be 18 years old, a US citizen, and not convicted of a felony. Some states have additional requirements such as identification. Historically, some people have been denied the right to vote, either by certain laws, by physical or programmatic barriers, or by the actions of others. People with disabilities are among those who have been disenfranchised, or unable to vote, though they meet the age and citizenship requirements. According to the US Department of Justice, people with disabilities have been prevented from voting because of prejudicial ideas about their capabilities, because of physical barriers to polling places, and because of lack of access to ballots in accessible formats.

The Department of Justice describes five federal laws protecting the right to vote:

  • The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which requires state and local governments to ensure that people with disabilities have a full and equal opportunity to vote (Title II).
  • The Voting Rights Act of 1965 which prohibits condition of voting on the ability to read or write, level of education, or other test. It also requires that election officials allow a voter with a disability to receive assistance from someone they choose (other than their employer).
  • The Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984 requires accessible polling places or alternative means of voting on election day.
  • The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 requires that public programs which serve people with disabilities provide the opportunity to register to vote.
  • The Help America Vote Act of 2002 requires at least one accessible voting system for people with disabilities be available at each polling place for federal elections.

Learn more about these laws and how they apply to common aspects of the election process.

In 2016, we examined some of the research on enfranchisement and civic participation from the NIDILRR community and elsewhere in our reSearch series. This article reviews abstracts of current and completed research projects funded by NIDILRR, as well as research literature indexed in our own REHABDATA database, PubMed, and ERIC.

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The American Association of Persons with Disabilities sponsors an annual National Disability Voter Registration Week (NDVRW) to increase civic engagement among people with disabilities and the importance of the disability voice in elections. Learn more about NDVRW and how to organize voter registration events.

Learn about other civil rights laws protecting the rights of people with disabilities in the US.