A Study of the Political Behavior of People with Disabilities - What Determines Voter Turnout, Executive Summary: Empowerment through Civic Participation

Are people with disabilities as likely as those without disabilities to vote, and to engage in other forms of political and civic participation? If not, why not? Internet publication URL: www.independentliving.org/docs5/disvoters.html

Final Report to the
Disability Research Consortium
Bureau of Economic Research, Rutgers University
and New Jersey Developmental Disabilities Council
April 1999

Douglas L. Kruse, Ph.D.
School of Management and Labor Relations
Rutgers University
94 Rockafeller Road
Piscataway, NJ 08854
(732) 445-5991
dkruse@rci.rutgers.edu
Kay Schriner, Ph.D.
Dept. of Rehabilitation Education and Research
University of Arkansas
346 N. West Avenue
Fayetteville, AR 72701
(501) 575-6417
kays@comp.uark.edu
Lisa Schur, J.D., Ph.D.
School of Management and Labor Relations
Rutgers University
50 Labor Center Way
New Brunswick, NJ 08903
(732) 932-1743
LSchur@rci.rutgers.edu
Todd Shields, Ph.D.
Department of Political Science
University of Arkansas
434 Old Main
Fayetteville, AR 72701
(501) 575-6440

 

Executive Summary

Are people with disabilities as likely as those without disabilities to vote, and to engage in other forms of political and civic participation? If not, why not? Is there a role for policies to remove barriers or otherwise encourage greater participation by the 54 million Americans with disabilities?

This study reports on a new national random-household telephone survey of 1,240 American citizens of voting age, conducted after the recent elections in November, 1998. The disability questions from the upcoming 2000 Census were used to identify people with disabilities, supplemented by additional questions about the nature, severity, and duration of the disability. The sample was stratified so that interviews were conducted with 700 people with disabilities and 540 people without disabilities.

Survey respondents were asked standard questions about voting in 1996 and 1998, voter registration, voting mobilization by political parties and others, and perceptions of the political system. In addition, new questions were asked about actual and anticipated difficulties in voting at a polling place, transportation modes and difficulties, and personal competencies.


Voter Turnout and Registration

The major findings on voter turnout and registration in 1998 are:

  • People with disabilities were on average about 20 percentage points less likely than those without disabilities to vote, and 10 points less likely to be registered to vote, after adjusting for differences in demographic characteristics (age, sex, race, education, and marital status).
  • The voting gap between people with and without disabilities is especially wide among those who are age 65 or older, as shown in the figure below.
  • If people with disabilities voted at the same rate as those without disabilities, there would have been 4.6 million additional voters in 1998, raising the overall turnout rate by 2.5 percentage points.
  • The one-third of people with disabilities who are employed were as likely as employed people without disabilities to vote, while the two-thirds who are not employed were 17 percentage points less likely to be registered, and 30 points less likely to vote, than non-employed people without disabilities.
  • Political parties were less likely to contact people with disabilities in the 1998 campaigns.
  • While people with disabilities are less likely to view the political system as responsive to "people like me," they are as likely as people without disabilities to follow government and public affairs most of the time, and their lower voter turnout is not explained by their perceptions of the political system or their perceived ability to participate.
  • The overall disability voting gap is reduced only from 20 to 15 percentage points after accounting for other standard determinants of voting (such as mobilization, perceptions of the political system, and income). In addition to being concentrated among older and non-employed people with disabilities, low turnout is most likely among those who have difficulty going outside alone, severe visual impairments, and mental impairments.
  • People with disabilities are more likely than those without disabilities to have encountered, or expect, difficulties in voting at a polling place. Of those voting in the past ten years, 8% of people with disabilities encountered such problems compared to less than 2% of people without disabilities. Among those not voting within the past ten years, 27% of people with disabilities would expect such problems compared to 4% of people without disabilities.

The particularly low voter turnout among those who have difficulty going outside alone, despite the availability of absentee ballots, suggests that lack of access to polling places can dilute the value of voting and sense of civic duty and connection to one's fellow citizens. Problems with access to polling places as identified by respondent descriptions are split among general mobility, getting to the polling place, and being able to vote once at the polling place. Among all people with disabilities the percentages identifying such problems are as follows:

  Problems encountered if voted in past 10 years Problems expected if haven't voted in past 10 years
Any difficulty in voting at polling place 8.2% 27.5%
General mobility (walking, standing) 1.7% 10.3%
Getting to polling place 1.6% 8.8%
At polling place (getting inside, using booth/machine, long lines, seeing ballot) 3.9% 10.1%
Other 1.4% 2.9%

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also known as the "Motor Voter Act," was designed to increase voter registration by offering registration services at drivers' license agencies and other government service agencies. If this has had an effect, it appears similar for people with and without disabilities: close to one-fourth of respondents have registered since the Act took effect on January 1, 1995, close to one-tenth have registered at a driver's license agency, and close to 1% have registered at a disability agency or other public assistance agency, in both the disability and non-disability samples.


Other Forms of Political and Civic Participation

Apart from voting, are people with disabilities more or less likely to participate in other political and civic activities? The survey asked whether respondents had engaged in seven other forms of participation in the past 12 months:

  With disabilities Without disabilities
1. Contributed money to political party or candidate 13% 16%
2. Written or spoken to elected representative/official 30% 40%
3. Attended political meeting 13% 15%
4. Written letter to newspaper 7% 9%
5. Contributed money to org. trying to influence gov't policy or legislation 16% 22%
6. Otherwise worked with groups or on one's own to change gov't laws or policies 14% 19%
7. Worked with others on community problem 24% 28%

The major findings with respect to other forms of political and civic participation are:

  • People with disabilities were 10 percentage points less likely than those without disabilities to have engaged in any of these activities in the past twelve months, after accounting for demographic characteristics.
  • The disability gap varies greatly, however, by activity. After accounting for demographic characteristics, people with disabilities were as likely to have engaged in three of these activities (attended political meeting, written letter to newspaper, otherwise worked with groups or on one's own to change government laws or policies), and were:
    5 points less likely to have contributed to a campaign or candidate,
    9 points less likely to have contacted an elected representative or public official,
    5 points less likely to have contributed to an organization trying to influence government laws or policies, and
    5.5 points more likely to have worked with others on a community problem.
  • Lower participation in the above three activities, as with voting, is concentrated among those who are older and have difficulty going outside (even though the activities can be done in the home).
  • Just under one-tenth (8%) of people with disabilities had engaged in any of the activities on a disability issue, while over two-fifths (43%) engaged in these activities only on non-disability issues.
  • One-tenth (10%) of people with disabilities said that they had worked to change a private organization's policies regarding people with disabilities (such as through talking to business owners, or filing a lawsuit).

 

Implications

The overall results indicate that most people with disabilities feel well-qualified to participate in politics, and are as likely as otherwise-similar people without disabilities to participate in several non-electoral political and civic activities. They are, however, less likely on average to vote, make contributions to campaigns or political organizations, or contact elected representatives and public officials. The participation gaps are concentrated among people with disabilities who are non-employed, older, and have difficulty going outside alone - those who are employed and/or younger (18-44) are, in fact, about as likely as otherwise-similar people without disabilities to engage in these activities.

The finding that participation is lowest among those who have difficulty going outside the home alone - despite the fact that these forms of participation can be done inside the home - indicates the importance of accessible transportation and interaction with mainstream society. Isolation and confinement to one's home can decrease "social capital" - the social skills, knowledge, connections, and identification developed from regular interaction with many other people. The loss of social capital, through isolationism or ostracism, can cause a self-perpetuating spiral into obscurity not only for the individual but also for the political ideas, experiences, and groups the individual represents.

Feelings of isolation from mainstream society can only be heightened by difficulties in voting, since voting is a basic act of citizenship in a democracy. Actual or expected problems in voting at a polling place are highest among those who have difficulty going outside alone, and are high among those with severe vision impairments and mental impairments. The lack of accessible transportation and polling places marginalizes many people with disabilities, making them second-class citizens who cannot publicly join others in exercising the right to vote, and weakening their sense of connection to fellow citizens and mainstream society.

Just as the low employment levels of people with disabilities represent a waste of economic resources, their low levels of voting and participation in several political activities represent a waste of political and social resources. Democracies work best with an active, engaged citizenry - only through full participation can individuals and groups expect to be adequately and correctly represented by political leaders. Participation can have important personal benefits as well: democratic theorists such as John Stuart Mill have argued that only through political involvement can one become truly empowered and perform as an enlightened democratic citizen.

These findings support policies that seek to ensure fully accessible polling places and transportation, as well as the need to communicate the fact of greater accessibility to those who have not voted in the recent past. Among the policies that deserve serious scrutiny are:

  • an information campaign for government service agencies to promote better implementation of the "Motor Voter Act,"
  • federal standards on polling place accessibility for all people with disabilities,
  • technical assistance to state and local election officials to promote accessibility, and
  • federal standards to ensure that all campaign activities (speeches, commercials, etc.) are accessible to people with various impairments.

In addition, the fact that there is no voting gap between employed people with and without disabilities indicates that employment - in addition to its important economic and social benefits - can play an important role in increasing the social capital and political participation of people with disabilities. This lends further weight to the ADA's goal of increasing employment among people with disabilities.

For more info:
Douglas L. Kruse, Ph.D.
School of Management and Labor Relations
Rutgers University
94 Rockafeller Road
Piscataway, NJ 08854
(732) 445-5991
dkruse@rci.rutgers.edu

 

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