Disabled Denied Democracy

The ideal of American democracy is that everyone has a say in the direction of our future. We know that’s not true. People with disabilities don’t have the same chances to be involved in political life as non-disabled. If you think America would be better with a more inclusive democracy reforming our elections is an essential first step.

Disadvantage takes many forms in the United States. Each one presents unique challenges for people wanting to get involved in community leadership. Today running a political campaign is unnecessarily hard for people with disabilities. Almost everything about running for elected office was created with non-disabled individuals at the center.

Building a just and equitable democratic society begins at our intersections. Exploring how we can improve access to democracy for disabled people creates pathways for others seeking to challenge and change the character of our institutions.  

Campaigning and Voting

Running a political campaign is a challenging but rewarding experience. If you’ve got good ideas and a passion for serving your community, you should run for office. One idea we can all get behind is making the process of running more fair and inclusive. Disabled people face a lot of challenges that non-disabled people don’t, making running for office incredibly unequal from the start.  

Today’s political campaigns are changing. More and more people are running and refusing corporate money. But until we can change campaign finance laws, fundraising will stay a big part of running for office. Disabled candidates may face more disadvantages while attempting to fundraise than non-disabled.

Some disabled candidates may rely on sources of support like Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid. Both programs center access around income, assets, and earnings over $2,000 a month will result in a loss of benefits. This makes the risk of fundraising very difficult for someone receiving a fixed income. Others may have disabilities that make talking on the phone hard, making raising money feel like an impossible hurdle. 

Every election in the United States, from School Board to President, requires money. While money is used as a barrier to protect all corporate candidates, it is especially unfair to those with disabilities. The intersectional justice solution is public funding of elections. 

Door knocking (canvassing) is a vital part of running for office [1]. Knocking on doors is very hard for someone with vision or mobility issues; some households will be impossible to access! A disabled candidate lacks the same opportunity as a non-disabled candidate to connect face to face with voters. 

Disabled candidates face these barriers because political campaigning today is a minor evolution of the methods of the past. There’s more tech, more money, more corporations, but it’s all evolved from an exclusive system. If we want an inclusive democracy, we need to redesign it from the ground up. It’s the only way to break free of the past’s control over the present. 


Thinking Inclusive

Disabled people deserve to have easy access to voting information at all levels of government. People with vision or hearing disabilities are more likely to be unable to learn about their candidate options. Services providing people with disabilities equal access like sign language interpreters and multi-format materials are rarely available at campaign events. 

We also lack the information infrastructure for voters whose disabilities prevent them from attending external events. In many instances, especially at the state and local level, information is simply unavailable. In 2018 a study I was involved with on New Jersey’s local elections found that 77% of candidates running for municipality office had no information about their campaigns listed online. [2]

The solution to both of these issues is to expand the laws surrounding elections. It is undemocratic and discriminatory to deny voters total access to candidate information.

One solution may be the implementation of a publicly owned candidate information platform. All candidates would be required to register on the platform and complete specific informational requirements. All citizens can access platform content available in video, written, and audio formats to ensure accessibility. 

We should partner this innovation with efforts to promote platform use. The programs could take shape as mandatory civics classes for High School Juniors and Seniors, monthly training programs at the local community center, and digital training available to anyone. Investing time and resources into encouraging platform use goes hand in hand with these inclusive projects. 

Another would be publicly funded elections, or at the very least, publicly funded election events. Both are a big step towards equalizing electoral opportunities. The removal of the fundraising aspect of political campaigning shifts the focus of the candidate to connect with the community and develop sound policy. It removes many of the existing barriers that give disabled candidates unequal opportunities to compete. 

Publicly funded elections may be far away for some states because we’re asking those who benefit from the corporate control of democracy to relinquish their power. Another option might be locally focused publicly funded election events. Imagine a mandatory town hall debate night for town council and mayoral races. 

These events would have sign language interpreters as well as multi-format media to take home. Issue focused and non-partisan, we rethink our local democratic process to focus on the ideas. A shift that equalizes access and betters the community. 

Candidates with disabilities will continue to face disadvantages during campaigning unless we’re willing to rethink the electoral process. This deepening of democracy will radically change the opportunities available to our community members with disabilities to be involved in the process. 

The goal of opening up democratic access is to recognize the humanity and latent experimental potential contained in every person. Empowering disabled people to participate rejects the discrimination imposed by inherited structure and reclaims our right to challenge and change our process. Nothing is stopping better elections except our collective willpower. 

If you’re disabled and interested in running for office, be sure to visit the National Council on Independent Living’s website. They have several guides and tools you can use to get started in the process. Please also feel free to touch base with me directly at @riversmind with any questions about the process you may have. 

[1] Will a Five-Minute Discussion Change Your Mind?  A Countrywide Experiment on Voter Choice in France by Vincent Ponz American Economic Review 2018 https://pubs.aeaweb.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1257/aer.20160524 

[2] 2018 Annual Report OurSociety https://www.oursociety.org/2018-annual-report/ 

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