Why does Pennsylvania make it so hard to vote?

The midterm election is five weeks away. Where is my mail-in ballot?  

On August 26, 2016, a few weeks after covering the historic Democratic National Convention for a national publication, I was paralyzed. Until that time, I was a familiar face at my local polling place, never having missed an election. 

But since I was paralyzed, like many of the 61 million disabled Americans (26 percent of adults in the U.S. have some type of disability), I have had to vote by absentee ballot. In Pennsylvania, this has been an unnecessarily complex process that requires petitioning to be allowed to vote by mail.

The voter must explain why they are making the request. Will they be out of the municipality on Election Day or are they sick/disabled? 

If it’s the latter, the voter must cite their illness or disability and give their physician’s name, address and phone number.

How is this legal when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990 and HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) was enacted in 1996? The ADA says that Americans are supposed to have equal access to the ballot box. HIPAA says that one’s medical status is a private matter. 

The pandemic should have changed this absentee ballot process that demands violation of both laws, but the draconian process drags on. While Pennsylvania voters are supposed to have access to mail-in voting since the 2020 pandemic, the form is confusing and if you answer “yes” to the disability question, you are routed away from a mail-in ballot to an absentee ballot.

For the past few elections I was forced to ask then-Election Commissioner Al Schmidt to help me get a ballot because the application process is so lengthy; I was often in fear of being disenfranchised. I even wrote about it for PGN during the 2018 midterm election.

But Al Schmidt is at the Committee of 70 now, trying to save democracy in a different venue, and I have yet to even receive an acknowledgment from the PA Board of Elections that I applied for an absentee ballot. 

Will I get to vote? The clock is ticking. 

Not having a driver’s license also complicates things. If you don’t have a driver’s license ID or a PennDot ID AND you are disabled or chronically ill, you are even less likely to get your ballot. I do not have either, because I am paralyzed and can’t go get a new ID. But I really want to vote. 

Why does Pennsylvania make it so hard for disabled and chronically ill people to vote when the CDC says so many women, people of color and folks over 65 have a disability? Why do you have to have a driver’s license to apply for a mail-in ballot, especially when you have been a consistent voter? How is this different from demanding voter ID cards as the Republican party has been doing for years, including in Pennsylvania last December? 

My wife is undergoing chemo for a very aggressive cancer. For the first time in her voting life she will be voting via absentee ballot. But when I filled out the online form for her — luckily she has a driver’s license so she can apply online and doesn’t have to go through yet another step as I do — she said she thought having to declare she had cancer and give her primary physician’s data was a HIPAA violation.

I have done it for so many years reflexively, I hadn’t actually thought about this. But as a non-disabled person with a transitory condition keeping her from the polls, she thought it was a privacy violation.

When I took to Twitter with this, I was bombarded by the ableism of Democrats and MAGAs alike. One MAGA guy told me to “just don’t vote.” Democrats spoke to me as if I were a child, each claiming the form that I had literally just filled out didn’t say what it said. 

When I posted screenshots of the questions, a Pa. Rep, Jessica Benham, (D-Allegheny), told me I should have just answered no to the introductory questions and that would have directed me elsewhere so I wouldn’t have to answer the intrusive health questions.

Benham said on Twitter, “If you click no on the disability Q, you’ll be directed to the no excuses mail in ballot which does not require health info. It’s confusing because we have to maintain the absentee for health/travel because it’s in our constitution.”

Yes, a state house rep — trying sincerely to help me — said I should have lied on my ballot application.

Yeah, no. I’m not going to be doing that and risk whatever consequences there might be for me or my wife. Later I saw on a different site that this detail is in the fine print. But I hadn’t gone to that site. I’d clicked on the simpler “apply online” option, which as Benham noted “is confusing.”

If I hadn’t experienced this ableism repeatedly over years, I might not have gotten into a Twitter imbroglio with so many folks on my side of the aisle. But the fact is, voter suppression of people with disabilities and chronic illnesses is rampant and has been for, well, ever.

In February, the Public Interest Law Center filed an amicus brief with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court supporting voters’ right to choose to vote by mail. The brief backs the appeal by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from the Commonwealth Court’s decision to strike down Pennsylvania’s expansion of mail-in voting, Act 77. This law, passed with bipartisan support in 2019, allows all Pennsylvania voters to choose to cast a mail-in ballot without requiring an excuse. 

The brief was filed on behalf of registered PA voters and Disability Rights Pennsylvania, a state-designated protection and advocacy organization for people with disabilities, represented by the Public Interest Law Center and pro bono co-counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, and Prof. Jessie Allen. 

As the brief asserts, “Voters with disabilities face an especially increased risk of disenfranchisement.”

Queer people have been at the forefront of the disability rights movement to enfranchise voters. Alice Wong of the Disability Visibility Project, Gregg Beratan of cripthevote.blogspot.com, and Andrew Pulrang of disabilitythinking.com all created the #CripTheVote disability access movement for voting back in 2016. Teen Vogue reported on their work on Sept. 22. 

Part of the GOP backlash against the 2020 election results has been to limit voting as much as possible to historically marginalized voters who most often vote Democratic: Black and brown voters, LGBTQ voters, disabled voters. According to a 2021 ACLU report, more than 400 voter suppression and anti-voter bills have been introduced in the U.S.

I just want to vote. I want my very sick wife to be able to vote. Pennsylvania is one of the most pivotal swing states in this midterm election and the state should be making it easier for historically disenfranchised voters — and everyone else — to access the ballot box. 

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