USA Today Interviews Professor Nina Kohn About Voters with Disabilities

Professor Nina Kohn

How the pandemic has affected voters with disabilities – roughly one-sixth of the US electorate

(USA Today | Oct. 29, 2020) Penny Shaw, 77, who lives in a long-term care facility in Braintree, Massachusetts, normally votes at a polling place she can get to easily in her electric wheelchair. This year, Shaw had to come up with a new plan.

Braintree officials changed polling place locations because of the pandemic, and Shaw worried that her severe muscle weakness from Guillain-Barre syndrome would prevent her from getting to the nearest site. She couldn’t get election officials on the phone to confirm the new location, and she has trouble using a computer. So, she requested an absentee ballot and took it to a post office six blocks away.

“Better to be safe than sorry,” she said. “I don’t want to not vote.”

Shaw’s situation is emblematic of the new difficulties the pandemic has created for voters with disabilities – even as many of them are benefitting from the relaxation of rules regarding who can cast an absentee ballot …

Nina A. Kohn, law professor at Syracuse University and a distinguished scholar in elder law at Yale Law School, said in a phone interview that while laws like the Voting Rights Act and directives like the one from CMS may outline how voters with disabilities must be accommodated, there are often impediments.

“As a practical matter, how do they obtain that assistance?” she said. “With COVID, many individuals don’t have access to family members and friends who would provide that assistance. In congregate care settings, how do they obtain a mail-in ballot? In many states, they have to request a ballot. How do they obtain that request? Not all have access to the internet. Or they may have muscular problems that make it hard to maneuver around a computer” …

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