Disabled people face GOP pushback in bid to study voting access

A proposal to study the voting rights of disabled people to see if improved wheelchair access and other accommodations might be needed encountered heavy pushback from several Louisiana House Republicans on Tuesday. The proposal ultimately advanced from the House and Governmental Affairs Committee after GOP lawmakers removed language that specified “curbside voting” for disabled people as one of the topics that would be studied.

House Concurrent Resolution 14, sponsored by Rep. Matthew Willard, D-New Orleans, does not propose any new laws or any changes to existing laws. It is what legislators refer to as a study resolution, a way of gaining nonpartisan recommendations on any particular issue by assembling a subcommittee or task force typically comprised of a combination of public and private sector experts, government officials and residents or members of the community most affected by the issue.

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It is a process that often requires task force members to meet multiple times and gather data over a period of several months. Their recommendations have no legal weight and, if accepted, still need to be included in legislation that lawmakers would debate and vote on. For these reasons, study resolutions are common during a legislative session and often do not encounter the level of opposition one might see with a regular bill, though some have in the past.

Willard’s resolution would assemble a task force to study the voting rights of disabled people, including the amenities and procedures currently available in Louisiana and any impediments that might exist to voting.

The 11-member task force would have at least four representatives from the disabilities community and be chaired by the Louisiana Secretary of State with a Feb. 1, 2023, deadline to complete its work and submit a report of its findings to the House and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Willard said he introduced the legislation after some of his disabled constituents told him that they still face many different challenges with voting. He thought the best way to do that would be to give the disabled communities a “seat at the table” and allow them to directly shape the legislation.

Rep. Dodie Horton, R-Haughton, questioning the need for the resolution, said polling places in her area are accessible to disabled people and pointed out that she has a family member “very near and dear” to her who is disabled.

“What we already do now, to me, seems to be most efficient,” Horton said. “And if someone goes to a polling place that’s not, all they have to do is call their clerk of court, and I assure you that accommodations will be made.”

Responding to Horton’s comments, Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin pointed out that a system of voting that makes disabled people rely on personal assistance does not offer the anonymity that is constitutionally guaranteed and afforded to everyone else through the secret ballot. He said anonymity and independence were some of the main concerns disabled people voiced at recent Voting System Commission meetings.

“They would like as many options as possible to be able to vote independently and not have to have assistance at the polling places,” Ardoin, a Republican, said. “To my understanding, I think that is why they’re asking us to do this study.”

Rep. Polly Thomas, R-Metairie, asked Willard for specific locations of polling places that are not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or where disabled people were denied the right to vote. Willard said the whole point of the legislation is to answer those questions.

Ardoin said his office has received complaints about disability access at a particular polling location in New Orleans. He said he is working with local officials to improve those accommodations.

Wheelchair ramps serve only a fraction of the disabled population. In addition to mobility disabilities, other conditions that can severely impede one’s ability to vote include vision loss, hearing loss, chronic illnesses, cognitive impairments, neurological disorders and conditions impairing one’s ability for self-care and independent living.

According to the 2021 Disability Statistics Compendium, which compiles data from several federal sources, the Census Bureau estimates Louisiana has more than 700,000 residents with a disability that causes serious impairment and, out of all states, has the highest percentage (23%) of individuals with a vision disability — meaning they are blind or have serious difficulty seeing even when wearing glasses. Those numbers do not include people in institutions such as jails and nursing homes.

The Centers for Disease Control puts Louisiana’s disabled population higher, at about 1.1 million.

Approximately 270,000 disabled people in Louisiana voted in the 2020 election and an estimated 643,000 are currently eligible to vote, according to Rutgers University’s Program on Disability Research.

Thomas said she is a special educator and feels the current system’s medical allowance for an absentee mail-in ballot is “not burdensome” and is “quite easy and fast” for disabled people. “And you’re telling me differently?” she asked.

Willard said he would never presume to know what it actually is like for any disabled person and is proposing the resolution so that lawmakers can hear directly from those with disabilities.

Thomas repeated what Horton said earlier, recommending that Willard’s constituents call an election official if they have difficulties on voting day.

Also questioning the need for the study, Rep. Beau Beaullieu, R-New Iberia, expressed concern that the task force could recommend curbside voting or ballot drop-boxes and said the study “could be opening it up to more than just an ADA issue.”

“When you use the term disability, now all of a sudden we’re going to have somebody who’s, I don’t know, got some mild depression that’s fallen into this category,” Beaullieu said. “Can it open up to other things is more what I worry about when you start going down this task force deal.”

Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, said he didn’t expect a study resolution to draw so much debate and told his colleagues they should want to make informed decisions.

“I just think as a general policy matter we should never be opposed to the idea of studying something to be more informed about any subject matter even if we’re afraid of what the study might reveal — period,” Duplessis said.

He said that when the subject of disabilities comes up, people who are not disabled often mention that they have a friend or family member who is disabled and tend to believe such a connection makes them especially empathetic to the wider disabled community.

“We may say we care about people who have disabilities, etcetera, but the reality is that many times we don’t understand or know the full extent of what a disability truly even is,” Duplessis said. “So sometimes we are all at fault for assuming that a disability is just someone who is limited to a wheelchair or a disability is someone who is just blind.”

With partisan lines taking shape among the committee members, Ardoin said the source of all the “angst” was a clause in the resolution that explicitly identified curbside voting as one of the possible solutions that should be studied. Thus, with Willard’s permission, chairman Rep. John Stefanski, R-Crowley, introduced an amendment that removed that clause, leaving the resolution silent as to which solutions the task force should study.

Stefanski’s motion quelled the debate, allowing HCR 14 to advance without objection. It will next head to the House floor.

A concurrent resolution does not require the governor’s approval.


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