The fight for voting rights is one of the most enduring struggles in our nation’s history. From its founding, when voting rights were limited to just wealthy white men, efforts to expand the franchise have been hard-fought and typically succeed only in response to national crises. Because of slavery, African American men, for example, were denied the right to vote until the adoption of the post-Civil War 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Even then, the right to vote for the previously enslaved was severely restricted in many states through the adoption of “Jim Crow” laws. Women were not covered by the 15th Amendment. They were granted the right to vote after much agitation and in the wake of World War I with the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920. Native Americans were not granted full citizenship rights until passage of the Snyder Act in 1924, but even then, the right to vote was left to the states with the result being that it was not until 1965 that all Native Americans were theoretically covered. The voting age was lowered from 21 to 18 years of age by the 26th Amendment for young voters in response to the Vietnam War, with the cry, “old enough to fight, old enough to vote.” Similarly, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 theoretically ending Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised Black, Latino, and Asian American voters was passed thanks to the modern Civil Rights Movement, which itself was sparked by two decades of advocacy and protest since World War II to end racial segregation.
Persons with disabilities often suffer unique disadvantages in exercising their constitutional right to vote. People who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices such as walkers have been unable to enter the polling place to cast ballots because there was no ramp. People who are blind or have low vision could not cast their vote because the ballot was completely inaccessible to them. People with intellectual or mental health disabilities have been prevented from voting because of prejudicial assumptions about their capabilities. It took the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and other federal legislation to secure the right to vote for persons with disabilities. Even so, among voters with disabilities in 2020, only 26% voted at the polling place on Election Day compared to 31% of voters without disabilities.
Each of these events spurred an expansion of voting rights because we recognized as a country that when we restrict the right to vote, we deny our founding principles and harm our national character. Democracy depends on the ability of citizens to vote. We could not claim our democratic ideals while simultaneously suppressing the right to vote for millions of Americans.
Today, the struggle for voting rights continues, as far too many voters still cannot cast a ballot. Many of the voters who have been systematically excluded from the voting process throughout history continue to face obstacles to successfully voting today, especially military voters, voters with disabilities, Tribal community voters, and younger voters. We also continue to see the impact of climate change and natural disasters that add urgency to finding more resilient voting options to ensure Americans displaced in emergencies are not also disenfranchised.
The result is depressed turnout for too many voters. Even in 2020, when voter turnout was the highest in a century thanks to expanded voting options like vote by mail and early voting, significant turnout gaps persisted for traditionally underrepresented groups.
As a country, more must be done to expand access to voting for all eligible voters to ensure our democracy is truly serving all its citizens and we have guaranteed voting rights for all Americans. At the same time, we must also guarantee that any expansion of voter access is coupled with protection for the integrity of the voting process. This paper examines how our existing voting options systematically fail certain groups of voters and discusses how technologies like mobile voting would remove barriers and further expand voting access for these voters without compromising the integrity of the election.