How accessible is voting in Detroit?

ballot drop box in detroit with road construction that restricts access

Voters raised concerns when a Detroit ballot drop box was temporarily obstructed this week before city workers completed construction the following day. Absentee ballot return is one of several issues that complicate and restrict voting for Detroiters with disabilities. Photo courtesy of the city

This election season, a projected 38.3 million U.S. voters with disabilities are eligible to cast their ballot by Nov. 3. Yet the turnout in this group lagged nearly six percentage points behind voters without disabilities in 2012. 

“This is in large part a problem of accessibility and feeling like the process doesn’t work for us,” said Dessa Cosma, executive director of Detroit Disability Power,  a social justice group focused on organizing people with disabilities in Metro Detroit. The organization is one of the founding partners of the statewide People with Disabilities Voting Rights Coalition that started in 2018 after the midterm elections. 

dessa cosma photo
Dessa Cosma, executive director of Detroit Disability Power. Courtesy photo

Since 2008, the number of voters with disabilities has risen nearly 20%, representing 16.3% of the country’s electorate, which is more than Black or Hispanic American eligible voters, according to a report from the Program for Disability Research at Rutgers University released in 2020.

Though their partisan split is similar to that of other citizens, the size of this voter group and their families, indicates their potential to swing elections, Professor Lisa Schur, co-director of the Program for Disability Research at Rutgers University wrote in the report. 

Michigan ranks in the top 10 among U.S. states for number of voters with disabilities.  In Detroit alone, Cosma said there are 117,000 such voters, accounting for about 20% of the city electorate. 

  â€œAnd yet, we’re left out of this political process in an entirely different way, because nobody’s thinking about us. And nobody’s trying to court us as a group,” she said, terming it “voter suppression through neglect.”

Teddy Dorsette III, a Detroit-bred deaf filmmaker and organizer at Detroit Disability Power, added that persons with disabilities should not have to struggle so much to be counted. “In this day and age, we should not be an afterthought, we should be a priority.” he said.

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Teddy Dorsette III, organizer at Detroit Disability Power. Courtesy photo

We talked to Dorsette and Cosma about how Detroit is working to accommodate voters with disabilities, the serious barriers to voting that remain and the particular challenges of voting absentee.

What has the city promised it will change since the People with Disabilities Voting Rights Coalition formed in 2018? Has it kept that promise? 

DC: So we’ve audited problematic polling places and offered the city recommendations on how to make these locations more accessible for different kinds of disabilities. If certain locations were just entirely inaccessible, we’ve said so and in some of those cases the city did change the polling stations. We also now have laws protecting our rights and the city has hired disability activists to train and sensitize poll workers to better serve disabled voters. We’re really happy this has happened but there are other issues as well.  

For instance, the city said they would put up a disability-specific hotline on the day of the Primary election, to address the particular kind of accessibility issues voters with disabilities face. They did set this up last minute, but never publicized it. And so when disabled voters faced problems, they didn’t know where to report it. The city interpreted that to mean “Oh, there were no problems.” But that was not the case. It was literally that nobody had ever publicly put out the number. 

It’s really been a mixed bag in which we work with the government, and we see movement, but we actually don’t see the positive impact on the ground when the time comes. 

Tell us more about some of the issues voters with disabilities face in Detroit.

TD: Basically, the architecture in Detroit is very old, and a lot of polling locations are set up in this old architecture so there are always a lot of issues around mobility and access to voting machines here. We’ve also often found that some of the VAT machines (Ed. note: VAT, or voter assisted terminals help voters with disabilities to independently cast their ballot in privacy) are not in working condition. We’ve even often found poll workers, posted with these VAT machines, who don’t know how to operate them or are not as knowledgeable as they should be to serve individuals with disabilities, which then becomes its own barrier. 

To a certain degree this has to do with poor planning, because we don’t seem prepared for voters with disabilities. Like for voters who may be hard of hearing or deaf, and rely on some form of lip reading, just to understand what’s being communicated to them, poll workers wearing masks is a new hurdle affecting accessibility. For me personally, we had to resort to writing back and forth, but that’s not a real solution. I was finally asked to to vote very close to the line and not in privacy, and that’s where I felt, “Okay, this doesn’t make me feel comfortable at all, it makes me honestly feel very unwelcome.” 

I think that’s why many deaf and hard of hearing individuals don’t go to vote, because they don’t want to be confronted with another negative experience of feeling neglected, left out and unwanted.

Have there been any issues right now with absentee voting for the Nov. 3 election? 

DC:, The absentee process is not a fully accessible process for disabled voters. If you’re blind, or have low vision, you can’t just fill out a ballot and mail it in — there is an option, as of this year, to fill it out on your computer, print it out, sign it and mail it in — which makes this a bit more accessible but we’ve seen that the second half of that process is still a problem. It assumes that people have access to the internet, a printer and someone who can help them mail it. So it is a step in the right direction, but it’s still a challenge. The recent court ruling that bans transportation to the polls also poses a significant problem for people in our community who can’t drive. 

Recently a ballot drop box in Detroit was temporarily obstructed by traffic cones and an unfinished section of road preventing voters from posting their ballots. Have there been other such issues in accessing ballot boxes?

TD: I’ve actually photographed a few areas around the city where the ballot boxes are not accessible for voters with disabilities. The designs for those ballot boxes are for individuals who are driving up, dropping a ballot off and then driving away. But [for] an individual in a wheelchair, the height of the boxes and the way it is designed to face the curb, doesn’t make it such an easy process. Even just to open that box, it takes a little bit of muscle, so for somebody who may not have the strength it’s an accessibility issue. And historically, an individual using a wheelchair doesn’t want to have to go out into the middle of the street to put their ballot in a box. It’d be great if they had simply another opening on the other side of the box. 

What do you think is currently missing in the modules for poll worker training? Or do you think that the city is trying to now improve on that? 

DC: While we were successfully able to train poll workers on disability etiquette, I think it’s an overload of information for a short amount of time, since the voting process for everyone generally has so many rules and is so complex. Poll workers need to absolutely know that if a person has a disability, and they want someone to help them vote, like they want to bring a family member or a friend with them into the polling booth, they can do that, no matter the nature of the disability. They don’t have to prove their disability in any way. A lot of times poll workers will say, “Hey, you can’t take him in there with you to the voting booth!” But you actually can. It’s an accommodation by law. [Ed. note: Michigan guidelines say the person assisting the voter should not be the voter’s employer, an agent of that employer or an officer or agent of a union to which the voter belongs.] Those are the kinds of things that turn off disabled voters from voting and that obviously has huge implications, because who wins an election has a huge impact on us as a marginalized community.

Why does the city need to pay more attention to voters with disabilities?

DC: I understand that listening to things that Teddy and I are saying may feel like small potatoes, and in the grander scheme of things, this is an election during a pandemic and a major presidential one at that. But we’re not talking about a handful of people — this is tens of thousands of people who are deaf, blind or wheelchair users for whom participating in the democratic process is more challenging. We are one of the fastest growing voting blocks in the country, our share of the population increases with age. And so making sure that our voting processes — both in person and from home — are really accessible is super important to making sure that people have equal access to democracy.

Portions of this interview were edited for length and clarity.

Alison Saldanha is a reporter and Elections SOS fellow with Detour Detroit.