State of the Disability Vote in Tennessee

Executive Summary

I. Introduction

2020 has proven to be an unprecedented and unpredictable year in the United States, and accordingly in Tennessee. With the specter of voting during a pandemic looming, half of all registered US voters expect it to be difficult to cast their vote on election day. If you have a disability in the state of Tennessee – that difficulty is even more pronounced. A recent study by Rutgers University found Tennessee had the second-lowest turnout of voters with disabilities in the 2018 mid-term elections at 37.6 percent, compared to a nationwide average of 53.4%. This broad uncertainty has exposed preexisting inequalities in access to the voting booth. Prior to COVID-19, over 40% of voters with disabilities expected difficulty casting their ballot. The barriers previously experienced by some are now faced by all. Rising to the challenge presented by the pandemic, states across the nation have broadened access to the ballot box through primary use of mail-in voting, reduced restrictions on absentee voting, use of ballot drop boxes or enhanced convenience voting. While these steps have increased access for all, it has also cracked open a window to new opportunity for free, fair and accessible elections for Americans with disabilities beyond the pandemic.

II. Voters with disabilities

Constituting nearly one third of Tennessee residents, the population of voters with disabilities is expected to continue to grow. As voters, persons with disabilities show higher levels of interest in politics and government, but have lower turnout voter turnout rates.

III. Barriers to voting

Tennessee voters with disabilities face numerous obstacles to casting their ballot. These include physical barriers to polling places and inaccessible or nonfunctioning machines. Like much of the country, Tennessee faces a significant poll worker shortage in 2020. Changes to the requirements of poll workers, inadequate training and worker policies limit the effectiveness of poll workers to assist voters with disabilities. Several systemic obstacles including a lack of reliable public transportation and strict voter ID laws exacerbate the voter turnout gap between persons with and without disabilities.

IV. Voter access efforts in Tennessee

The state of Tennessee has implemented several initiatives that improve voting accessibility for citizens with disabilities, including purchasing new accessible machines, granting paid voting leave, offering accessible absentee ballots and permitting online voter registration.

V. Policy Solutions

Public policy measures that have successfully increased voter access for Americans with disabilities in other states should be considered to improve voter experience and turnout in Tennessee such as...