Voter reform must include accessibility for seniors and persons with disabilities

Published in RINewsToday on May 17, 2021

It’s over 540 days until the November 8, 2022 mid-term elections. The clock is ticking, say voter rights advocates, who are gearing up to push back at voting bills they see as restrictive being introduced at multiple state houses.  

As of March 24, 2021, GOP State legislators, responding to claims of voter fraud and election irregularities in last year’s Presidential election, have introduced 361 bills seen as restrictive by voter rights advocates in 47 states. “That’s 108 more than the 253 similar bills tallied as of February 19, 2021 — a 43 percent increase in little more than a month,” according to data compiled by the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice.

“These measures have begun to be enacted. Five restrictive bills have already been signed into law. In addition, at least 55 restrictive bills in 24 states are moving through legislatures: 29 have passed at least one chamber, while another 26 have had some sort of committee action (e.g., a hearing, an amendment, or a committee vote),” says the nonpartisan law and policy institute, noting that in some cases “a single bill can have provisions with both restrictive and expansive effects”.

President Joe Biden and Congressional Democrats are pushing back at GOP efforts they see as “suppressing voting” and introduced H.R. 1, For the People Act, which would be intended to “expand voting rights, change campaign finance laws, end partisan gerrymandering and create new ethics for federal lawmakers”.  The bill is considered to be the largest overhaul of U.S. voting in a generation, and is opposed by GOP lawmakers, who call it overreaching.

Fix Voter Access Issues for Seniors, and Persons with Disabilities

Although newspapers regularly cover both voter security and voter rights issues, voter access issues impacting seniors and persons with disabilities don’t receive adequate ink. 

Now, a national report’s findings reveal that some obstacles still exist for disabled voters at the polls. The recently released U.S. Election Commission (EAC)’s comprehensive 52-page national report, “Disability and Voting Accessibility in the 2020 Elections,” identified accessibility issues for voters with disabilities.  The study focused on polling place access, mail and absentee voting accessibility, election administration challenges, COVID-19 obstacles, and community involvement.

As the EAC plans for future elections, this data will be crucial in helping officials adopt new voting technologies and address the ever-growing accessibility needs of an aging demographic.

“In an election year with so many obstacles and unknowns, the improvement in accessibility for voters with disabilities is a testament to the hard work and dedication of election officials,” EAC Chairman Ben Hovland said, in a February 16, 2021 statement announcing the release of the report. “We are proud of election officials’ accomplishments during an especially difficult election season. This study provides the EAC with indispensable feedback as we continue our work with election officials and accessibility experts to ensure all Americans can vote privately and independently,” he said.

The EAC spearheaded the study under clearinghouse and research mandates outlined in the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). The goal of the study was to analyze the 2020 election experience for voters with disabilities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Building on a similar 2012 study also conducted by the EAC in conjunction with Professors Schur and Kruse, of Rutgers University, the project launched immediately after the 2020 general election.

The 2020 study engaged 2,569 respondents including 1,782 voters with disabilities and 787 voters without disabilities. As in 2012, the oversampling of voters with disabilities was designed to produce a sample large enough for more accurate measurements and reliable breakdowns by demographic variables and type of disability.

Compared to 2012, overall results show election officials made great progress serving voters with disabilities and ensuring they could cast a private and independent ballot. Obstacles continue to exist, but improvements were evident.

According to the researchers, voting difficulties among people with disabilities declined markedly from 2012 to 2020. About one in nine voters with disabilities encountered difficulties voting in 2020. This is double the rate of people without disabilities, but a sizeable drop from 2012.

The study’s findings indicated that among people with disabilities who voted in person, 18 percent reported difficulties, compared to 10 percent of people without disabilities. The disability figure is down from 30 percent in 2012.

During a general election that experienced a shift to mail and absentee voting, 5 percent of voters with disabilities had difficulties using a mail ballot, compared to 2 percent of voters without disabilities. One in seven (14 percent) of voters with disabilities using a mail ballot needed assistance or encountered problems in voting, compared to only 3 percent of those without disabilities. 

The researchers found that five of six (83 percent) of voters with disabilities voted independently without any difficulty in 2020, compared to over nine of ten (92 percent) of voters without disabilities. Voting difficulties were most common among people with vision and cognitive impairments.

Close to 75 percent of voters with disabilities voted with a mail ballot or early in-person in 2020. This represents a significant increase from 2012 and is higher than the two-thirds of non-disabled voters who did so in 2020, say the researchers. No doubt the pandemic influenced the increase.

Finally, the researchers note that people with disabilities voted at a 7 percent lower rate than people without disabilities of the same age, pointing toward a continuing disability gap in voter turnout.

Senate Moves to Remove Barriers for Seniors and Disabled

Last month, U.S. Senators Bob Casey (D-PA), Chairman of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Chairwoman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Rules & Administration, introduced the Accessible Voting Act, legislation to remove barriers to voting for seniors and people with disabilities.  This legislation is cosponsored by U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR). Notably, an all Democratic sponsorship at this time.

This legislative action was triggered by a Government Accountability Study that found that combined deficiencies in architectural and voting booth access resulted in only 17 percent of polling places being fully accessible in 2016. The Accessible Voting Act would make polling places and voting systems more accessible, expand options for casting a ballot in federal elections and establish an Office of Accessibility within the Election Assistance Commission, dedicated to overseeing and supporting state efforts to make voting more accessible.

“The right to vote is one of the fundamental pillars of American democracy. That right is jeopardized when seniors and people with disabilities are pushed to the margins by barriers that prevent or make it hard for them to cast their ballots,” said Senator Casey in a statement announcing the introduction of the bill. “The Accessible Voting Act would remove these barriers and support the ongoing efforts by state and local agencies to make voting a truly equitable and accessible process,” he said.

“The right to vote is the foundation of our democracy, but exercising that right is not possible for too many Americans. Inaccessible polling places and voting booths, limited access to transportation, insufficient options for casting ballots, and inaccessible voter information websites are all obstacles to voting for millions of Americans,” adds Klobuchar. “The Accessible Voting Act would help ensure that we remove barriers to voting for citizens with disabilities, the elderly, Native Americans, and those with limited English proficiency. Our democracy works best when all citizens can make their voices heard at the ballot box,” she said.

“Despite existing federal law protecting the rights of people with disabilities, far too often, these rights are overlooked and forgotten in our electoral process. The Accessible Voting Act seeks to bolster the protections for voters with disabilities, as established by the Americans with Disabilities Act and Help America Vote Act, and ensure equitable access to every American voter in our democracy for years to come,” said Curt Decker, executive director, National Disability Rights Network.

The Accessible Voting Act would create a national resource center on accessible voting to conduct cultural competency training for election officials and poll workers.  It would establish a new state grant program for the Office of Accessibility to provide dedicated funding to improve accessibility to voting. Finally, it would provide voting information and resources through accessible websites so voters know how to register to vote and cast a ballot.

As Congress grapples with legislation coming from both parties to tighten voter security on one hand, and ease voter restrictions on the other, it will be a significant failure to not also address the issues of accessibility for our population facing aging and disability obstacles.

Never forgetting will help us keep the promise of “never again.”

Published in RINewsToday.com on February 1, 2021

During a Pro-Trump rally, as thousands of rioters swarmed the US Capitol on Jan. 6, Robert Keith Packer, sporting an unkempt beard, came wearing a black hoodie sweatshirt emblazoned with the phrase “Camp Auschwitz,” in white letters, the name of the most infamous of the many Nazi concentration camps where 1.1 million people were murdered during World War II.  Under a skull and bones at the bottom of his shirt was the phrase, “Work brings Freedom,” a loose translation of the phrase “Arbeit macht frei” that was inscribed above the main entrance gate at Auschwitz and other concentration camps’ gates. 

Packer’s image, 56, a former welder and pipefitter, was circulated widely on social media and by newspapers, evoking shock and disbelief.

Packer, a resident of Newport News, Virginia, was not the only anti-Semitic rioter that day, according to a report released by the Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the Network Contagion Research Institute. The report identified at least half a dozen neo-Nazi or white supremacist groups involved in the failed Capitol Insurrection who had also attended President Trump’s “Save America” rally speech. 

In recent years, anti-Semitic incidents have become more common in the Ocean State.

In 2017, the Providence Journal reported that the New England chapter of the Anti-Defamation League recorded 13 incidents of anti-Semitism in Rhode Island. Nazi swastikas were painted on a Providence building, at Broad Rock Middle School in North Kingstown, and even at a Pawtucket synagogue.

Anti-Semitism is Nothing New

But, anti-Semitism, exhibited at the “Save America” rally, has been in our country since its founding, and in fact, has been around western societies for centuries.  Over three years ago, torch marchers, some wearing Nazi-style helmets, carrying clubs, sticks and round makeshift shields emblazoned with swastikas and other Fascist symbols, and others entered the one-block square in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia, to protect a controversial Confederate monument, chanting “Jews will not replace us” and “Blood and Soil” (a Nazi rallying cry).  

The Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) 2014 Global Index of Anti-Semitism documented world-wide anti-Semitism. The survey found that more than 1 billion people – nearly one in eight – around the world harbor anti-Semitic attitudes. Carried out by First International Resources and commissioned by the ADL, this landmark survey included 53,100 adults in 102 countries representing 88 percent of the world’s adult population.

Over 30 percent of those surveyed said it was ‘probably true’ that Jews have too much control over financial markets, that Jews think they are better than other people, that Jews are disloyal to their country, and that people hate Jews because of the way that Jews behave. 

Most troubling, the ADL study found a large gap between seniors who know and lived through the horrendous events of World War II, and younger adults who, some 75 years after the Holocaust, are more likely to have heard of or learned that six million Jews were exterminated by the Nazis’ “Final Solution.” Nearly half of those surveyed claim to have never heard of the Holocaust and only a third believe historical accounts are accurate.

Gearing Up to Fight Antisemitism

On Jan. 14, the American Jewish Congress (AJC), a global Jewish advocacy organization, briefed the FBI on the continuing threats of anti-Semitism to the nation. 

“Antisemitism fundamentally is not only a Jewish problem; it is a societal one. It is a reflection on the declining health of our society,” Holly Huffnagle, AJC’s U.S. Director for Combating Antisemitism, told the FBI officials on a video conference briefing. “Education is essential, to clarify what constitutes antisemitism, the various sources of this hatred, and what effective tools are available for law enforcement to fight antisemitism,” she said.

The presentation of AJC’s second annual report on antisemitism in the U.S. took place in the wake of the January 6 assault on Capitol Hill, where anti-Semitic images and threats were openly conveyed by some of the rioters.

AJC’s 2020 report, based on parallel surveys of the American Jewish and general populations, revealed that 88 percent of Jews considered antisemitism a problem today in the U.S., 37 percent had personally been victims of antisemitism over the past five years and 31 percent had taken measures to conceal their Jewishness in public.

In the first-ever survey of the general U.S. population on antisemitism, AJC found a stunning lack of awareness of antisemitism. Nearly half of all Americans said they had either never heard the term “antisemitism” (21 percent) or are familiar with the word but not sure what it means (25 percent).

The AJC experts praised the FBI for its annual Hate Crimes Statistics report, which provides vital data on antisemitism. The latest report found 60.2 percent of religious bias hate crimes targeted Jews in 2019. But the report historically has not provided a full picture of the extent of hate crimes, since reporting by local law enforcement agencies is not mandatory.

To improve the monitoring and reporting of hate crimes, AJC continues to advocate for passage of the Jabara-Heyer National Opposition to Hate, Assaults, and Threats to Equality (NO HATE) Act. This measure will incentivize state and local law enforcement authorities to improve hate crime reporting by making grants available and managed through the Department of Justice.

In addition, AJC is asking the FBI to use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Working Definition of Antisemitism as an educational tool. The definition offers a clear and comprehensive description of antisemitism in its various forms, including hatred and discrimination against Jews, and Holocaust denial. 

FBI officials in the Bureau’s Civil Rights Unit, Intelligence Division, and Community Outreach Program, among others, participated in the AJC briefing.

Keeping the memory alive about the Holocaust is key to fighting antisemitism, says Andy Hollinger, Director of Communications, for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). “”We are seeing a disturbing trend in the rise of antisemitism and the open display of neo-Nazi symbols, most recently at the attack on the U.S. Capitol. This is a long-time problem requiring a long-time solution. We must remember. Education is key. We must learn from this history-learn about the dangers of unchecked hatred and antisemitism. And we must not be silent,” he says.

Adds Bill Benson, who has interviewed Holocaust Survivors before live audiences at the USHMM’s First Person program for more than 2 decades, observes that the majority of those visiting the museum are not Jewish and many of have little familiarity with the Holocaust, and as a result of their visit are profoundly affected by their experience. “The USHMM provides an extraordinary avenue for educating the general public about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism for those millions who visit it, but it is essential that many millions more learn the truth about anti-Semitism and that must done through our educational systems,” he notes.

“The USHMM does an incredible job of educating and assisting teachers who want to teach about the Holocaust, but far too many school systems do not teach about the Holocaust, without which the gulf in knowledge and awareness may only grow as we lose those first-hand knowledge of the Holocaust,” says Benson.

A 2009 report, “Jewish Survivors of the Holocaust Residing in the United States Estimates & Projections: 2010 – 2030,” prepared by the Berman Institute-North American Jewish Data Bank, for the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, estimated that 36,800 Holocaust survivors would still be living by 2025. As the number of survivors who witnessed the horrors of Genocide and the Holocaust during World War II continues to dwindle, a growing number of states, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio, and Texas, and have established Commissions to keep this knowledge alive to millennials, GenZ and  younger generations through educational programming and raise awareness through public education and community events to provide appropriate memorialization of the Holocaust on a regular basis throughout the state.

If the Rhode Island General Assembly legislates the establishment of a Rhode Island Genocide and Holocaust Education Commission, its motto might just be, “Never forgetting” will help us keep the promise of “Never Again.”