Voters with disabilities weigh in on voting legislation

As Texas Democrats push for federal voting legislation and Texas GOP leaders hope to pass bills combating voter fraud during a special session, one voter group says it doesn't want to get left out of the conversation.

"I voted by mail. I submitted my signature that unfortunately is never exactly the same, and I got a letter letting me know that my ballot was discounted," says Lauren Gerken, public policy analyst for the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities.

Hers is one of many stories shared by Texas voters with disabilities during testimony sessions to the House and Senate State Affairs Committees in July.

Many of the speakers say the Texas GOP's proposed voting legislation will make casting a ballot harder for those with physical and mental challenges.

So far, sharing their experiences has not stopped the advancement of both Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3, leaving some unsure if they've been heard.

"I have muscular dystrophy and you know, sometimes lifting my arm is arduous, so I may need help," says Lydia Nuñez, an organizer for Gulf Coast Adapt.

She says legislators, even Governor Greg Abbott, don't seem to understand their experience.

"Our governor is disabled, and you’d think that he would want to help disabled people to get out there and vote," she says.

Governor Abbott has thrown his support behind new voting legislation as "strengthening the integrity of elections in Texas."

Nuñez says having to print applications to vote by mail or explain a disability to poll watchers can make voting more intimidating than it already is.

"There tends to be a patronizing attitude about us or people questioning if we're really disabled," she says.  "I don't really want someone looking over my shoulder."

The Coalition of Texans with Disabilities says it's neutral on the new legislation, but strict penalties for people helping others vote is moving in the wrong direction.

"[It’s] just the new penalty structure and the fear that a simple mistake could lead towards a state jail felony," says deputy director Chase Bearden.

"At the end of the day, we don't want to discourage people from helping; we don't want to have them fearing a simple mistake, causing them to end up in trouble."

Bearden also testified during hearings, explaining that disabilities and illnesses, including having a stroke, can result in discrepancies in someone’s signature. 
"In 2018, we had 3,746 ballots thrown out due to mismatched [signatures]. Now, they didn’t find out until ten days after the election that their vote didn’t count."

Verifying signatures on mail-in ballots is not new, but S.B. 1 does allow voters to contest a discrepancy before their ballot is thrown out if they come in person.
"If someone is having to fill out a mail-in ballot and send it in, it's because they actually can't get to the polls, so if you're going to have to cure it by going down to the elections office to prove it, then we haven't really set it up in the right way," says Bearden.

By negotiating mail-in ballots for the visually impaired and other accessibility improvements, his organization is pushing independent voting for people with disabilities as a more secure way for them to cast a ballot.

"We should really be focusing more on how do we make voting more accessible [so] that people have to be less reliant on having assistance when needed," he adds.