Impact Feature Issue on Political Activism and Voter Participation by Persons with Intellectual and/or Developmental Disabilities

Exercising the Right to Vote


Lisa A. Ochs is Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology and Counseling at Arkansas State University-Jonesboro, teaching in the Master’s in Rehabilitation (MRC) program. She also has a law degree.

Amanda Jones-Shelton and is a candidate rehabilitation counseling student in the MRC program.

Shannon O’Donohue is a candidate rehabilitation counseling student in the MRC program.

“I think every citizen of America should vote to show good citizenship,” stated Jill, when asked why she votes. Jill is a consumer of a community-based independent living program. She has a developmental disability. Jill went on to state, “Voting means we are able to express our opinions and ideas about various political issues.” Jill’s words echo what the U.S. Supreme Court has said about voting. In the 1964 Wesberry v. Sanders case, the Justices stated: “No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens, we must live” (Wesberry v. Sanders, 376 U.S. 1, 17-18). It is important that individuals who have intellectual and developmental disabilities participate in the political process. It is important that they vote. Elected state and federal officials make decisions that impact the lives of individuals with disabilities. For example, they make decisions about funding for services and service eligibility requirements.

To exercise the right to vote, an individual needs to take five steps: find out if they’re eligible, register to vote, learn about candidates and issues, find out about the voting location, and vote. Those steps are described in the rest of this article.

The First Step in Voting: Find Out if You Are Eligible to Vote

For an individual with a disability, the first step in voting is to determine if he or she is eligible to vote. Within guidelines set by the U.S. Supreme Court and the federal government, each state has the authority to say who can and who cannot vote. Some states do not allow individuals with some types of disabilities to vote. Other states encourage all individuals with disabilities to vote. To find out what the laws say in their state, an individual can contact the office of their secretary of state. There is also a chart on the Web that describes the laws in each state about individuals with disabilities voting. That chart is at www.napas.org/HAVA/HAVA_home.htm (click “What’s New” then “State Laws Affecting the Voting Rights of People with Mental Disabilities”).

The Second Step in Voting: Register

The second step is to register to vote. Each state sets a deadline for when an individual must register to vote. An individual can ask his or her family, friends, or service providers about the deadlines. An individual can also contact their city clerk’s office or county clerk’s office about the deadlines. A federal law, the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), requires that states provide opportunities to register at places such as public libraries, public schools, and other agencies that provide services to individuals with disabilities. A person can ask for a voter registration form at any of those places. Jill chose to register to vote at her local public library. The NVRA also requires that all registration sites provide assistance to fill out the registration, if needed.

An individual who is registering to vote must provide information about himself or herself. The information can vary from state to state. Information that is required by all states includes the individual’s address, date of birth, and either a personal identification card or a driver’s license.

The Third Step in Voting: Learn About the Candidates and Issues

The third step in participating in voting is to become educated about the issues and candidates. A voter should know each candidates’ stand on issues that are important to the voter. Jill explores the state legislature’s Web sites and the candidates’ campaign Web sites. She also visits the campaign headquarters of candidates and political parties. She is planning to be a local volunteer for the presidential and congressional campaigns this year. An individual can also learn about the candidates’ stands on issues through television news and local and state newspapers. Discussing political candidates with peers, family members, and other community members will provide information on the candidates and issues, as well. Many candidates attend and speak at community events. These events are open to the public. Attending these events is another way to get to know candidates and where they stand on issues. Check the local news and newspapers for additional details about events.

The Fourth Step in Voting: Identify Voting Location, Accommodations

The fourth step in participating in the political process and voting is to find out the date of the election and where to go to vote. The voter registration card identifies the individual’s voting precinct. The polling (voting) location for each voting precinct can be found by watching the local news, reading local newspapers, and asking people at voter registration agencies. Voters should ask for directions to the polling location if they are not sure where it is located. It is important that voters become familiar with the ballot itself. A sample ballot is often printed in local newspapers, displayed on the local news, and published on state legislative Web sites. The local office of the League of Women Voters can also be a resource for finding a sample ballot and for finding out one’s voting location.

It is also important to identify accommodations that might be needed on election day. If any accommodations or assistance are needed, such as physical accessibility accommodations, or a reader or interpreter, the voter should make arrangements for them prior to election day. Voters can contact city and county clerks’ offices for more information about accommodations. It may also be necessary to arrange for transportation to the polling location.

The Last Step in Voting: Vote

The final step in voting is to vote! It is necessary to pay attention to the time that the voting location (polling place) opens and closes on election day. Some polling places have long lines, so it’s important to allow plenty of time to vote. Individuals should bring their ID card or license to the polling place. Workers at the voting place have a list of all eligible voters, and voters have to sign in and verify their name and address with the election workers. If a  person is not on the list and has registered to vote, it may take awhile to find out why their name isn’t on the list. If that happens, it is possible to ask for a “provisional ballot” that allows a person to go ahead and vote while the workers are checking their eligibility. 

What if You Can’t Vote?

If an individual lives in a state that does not permit him or her to vote because of a disability and/or guardianship laws, the individual can participate in the political process in other ways. Individuals can encourage peers, family, and community members to vote for candidates who best represent the issues important to them. Individuals with disabilities can also volunteer to help with a candidate’s campaign, and can join groups to meet with legislators (lobby) throughout the year about issues that are important to the individual. Last year, Jill joined a group of her friends at her state’s capital to lobby against proposed cuts to Medicaid, which funds the services she receives. Lobbying for an issue or a law that impacts an individual personally – including lobbying to change laws that stop persons with disabilities from voting – is an effective way to participate in the political process.

Lisa A. Ochs is Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology and Counseling at Arkansas State University-Jonesboro, teaching in the Master’s in Rehabilitation (MRC) program. She also has a law degree. She may be reached at 870/972-3064 or by e-mail at lochs@astate.edu. Amanda Jones-Shelton and Shannon O’Donohue are candidate rehabilitation counseling students in the MRC program.