Vicki Landers was starting to think that she might actually have to go to the polls on Election Day and wait in line for hours to vote. She had requested her ballot in early September and watched for weeks as the mailbox in her Philadelphia home filled up with flyers imploring her to vote in the election. But her ballot was nowhere to be found — until a week before Election Day.
Relief washed over her. Landers, who has bipolar disorder, mobility and autoimmune disabilities, hearing loss, and generalized anxiety disorder, has largely been staying indoors since March due to the coronavirus pandemic. The 52-year-old knew she did not want to vote in person when the election came around.
“I would never last being able to stand in those lines that long. Plus, people are way too close together for me,” she told BuzzFeed News, after seeing the long lines outside early voting locations on a recent trip to the grocery store.
As someone whose health conditions already make her more vulnerable to a deadly virus, and who has had plenty of experience navigating a healthcare system designed to serve the narrowest swath of patients at the highest cost, Landers has had to take every precaution to make sure she does not contract COVID-19.
Yet Landers has been determined to make sure her vote for Joe Biden is counted, knowing that every vote in the key battleground state of Pennsylvania, where Donald Trump won by 44,292 votes in 2016, matters. And she believes that turnout among voters with disabilities across the state this year can be significant enough to help a candidate scoop up all 20 of Pennsylvania’s prized electoral votes.
“I honestly believe that the uptick in disability voters should be huge this year,” she said.
For people with disabilities, the stakes in this election are exponentially high: The Affordable Care Act and its protections for preexisting conditions are unlikely to survive another four years of repeated attacks from Trump and Republicans, especially with a large conservative majority now in the Supreme Court. The administration has drawn up a budget proposal with deep slashes to funding for programs that help people with disabilities afford food, housing, and healthcare, as well as cutbacks on the number of people eligible for disability benefits. And with a pandemic that has no end in sight, losing critical government assistance and affordable healthcare can quite literally be a life-or-death situation for people with disabilities.
Across the country, an estimated 38.3 million people with disabilities are eligible to vote in the November election, amounting to nearly one-sixth of the total electorate, a Rutgers University study found. In Pennsylvania, 17.5% of people eligible to vote have disabilities.
As the founder of Disability Pride Philadelphia, Landers has seen how hard disability community leaders around the state worked to register new voters and inform them about procedures and accessibility at the polls this year. Voters with disabilities are hugely diverse, comprising different ages, races, and political leanings, according to a Pew report from 2016. It’s unclear if the group has shifted toward any one of the two major parties since, but Landers said the organizing efforts to get out the vote in disability communities this year is partly motivated by Trump’s attacks on healthcare in his first term, and more recently, his response to the pandemic.
“With the president that we have, we’re losing ground every day,” Landers said about Trump, who mocked a reporter with a congenital condition in 2016, then later denied doing so. “Right now we’re all terrified that we’re going to lose our health insurance, because he keeps saying that he’s going to cover people with preexisting conditions — that’s like, everybody with a disability. [But] there’s no plan. There’s nothing that says that that’s actually true.”
For voters with disabilities, participating in elections requires a degree of strategizing and planning ahead that most people take for granted. Campaign events and debates are often inaccessible — for people with hearing loss, for example, there usually are no American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters or captioning, which Landers said should fall on the candidates to request.
“People are like, ‘Oh, it’s the [news] station that’s running it.’ No, it’s not. It’s the candidates’ job to say, ‘I’m not going to do this unless you have these things,’” she said.
And polling places, where people have had to wait for hours in long lines to vote, are not always fully accessible for people with mobility disabilities. A study from the Government Accountability Office showed that most polling locations it examined in 2016 had at least one potential impediment outside the voting area that could hinder access for voters with disabilities, and not every polling location had accessible voting stations with functioning and visible earphones, enough space to fit a wheelchair, or a level of privacy that voters without disabilities are afforded.
For Landers, who always voted in person prior to the pandemic, the widespread use of mail-in ballots and extended deadlines this year has made voting much safer and more accessible. But many states, including Pennsylvania, have had their newly established voting rules dragged through the courts as part of a multimillion-dollar crusade by state Republicans and the Trump campaign to make mail-in voting much harder.
With only three days left until Election Day, many of these legal battles over mail-in voting have not yet been settled, which means there are states that still do not have settled voting rules. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that Pennsylvania election officials can count absentee ballots received up to three days after Election Day, but left open the possibility that ballots arriving after polls close on Nov. 3 may not be counted.
The Trump campaign has also drawn rebuke from Philadelphia officials for its attempts to surveil voters. Against local election law, the campaign sent unauthorized poll watchers to satellite polling places in the city, and after they were turned away, Trump brought up the incident without context as an example of voter fraud.
“In Philadelphia, they went in to watch. They’re called poll watchers,” he said at the first debate. “A very safe, very nice thing. They were thrown out. They weren’t allowed to watch. You know why? Because bad things happen in Philadelphia, bad things.”
The campaign has also sent out staffers to film voters dropping off ballots at drop boxes in an attempt to catch voters submitting two or three ballots, instead of just their own. But third-party ballot delivery is allowed under state law, and it is a critical accommodation for people with disabilities or who otherwise cannot physically drop off their own ballot.
“Our entire system of voting is built on your ballot being private and your choice to vote being a personal one,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro told the New York Times. “Depending on the circumstance, the act of photographing or recording a voter casting a ballot could be voter intimidation — which is illegal.”
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The Trump campaign did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ questions about whether it has done any outreach among voters with disabilities in Pennsylvania, if it has made efforts to increase accessibility at its events, or whether it has a policy to secure and improve the rights of Americans with disabilities.
On Friday morning, Landers put on a T-shirt that said “Not Today Satan,” took a cab to downtown Philadelphia, and placed her ballot in the drop-off box. She was excited to vote, but the protests roiling her city made her anxiety spike. The police killing of Walter Wallace Jr., a Black man who was experiencing a mental health crisis earlier this week, has set off dayslong demonstrations that led to a response from the National Guard. The anguish in the city over Wallace’s death is palpable.
“They keep shooting people with psychiatric disabilities,” Landers said. “It’s absolutely terrible, and it has just caused even more uproar here in Philadelphia.”
Biden, who handily won the Pennsylvania primary, was not Landers’ first choice for a Democratic candidate. She praised him for speaking openly about his stutter and helping to combat the stigma around people with disabilities — "Even Franklin Delano Roosevelt hid the fact that he was in a chair most of the time and he did not talk about it" — though she emphasized that it did not change the way she felt about him as a candidate.
Landers was disappointed by the Biden campaign’s disability policy, which was unveiled in May 2020. She did not think it was comprehensive enough, and would have liked to see him go further on expanding Medicare benefits.
“I was extremely discouraged by the fact that his disability policy came out extremely late,” she said, pointing out that it was released after most of the Democratic candidates had already put theirs out. “And it’s not good enough.”
The Biden campaign similarly did not respond to BuzzFeed News’ questions about whether it had done any outreach among voters with disabilities in Pennsylvania, or if it had made efforts to increase accessibility at its events.
Landers wants a president who will make it a priority to enforce and improve on the Americans With Disabilities Act, a law signed in 1990 that she said desperately needs updating.
“After 30 years of the Americans With Disabilities Act being in place, it has not been touched. There have been no updates to it,” she said. “And, still, 30 years later, we cannot just enforce those things. It’s a huge thing for me.”
So she was heartened by Biden’s choice for running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, who she said had a “comprehensive” disability policy (released in August 2019) during her run for the Democratic presidential nomination. But she was most impressed by the plans that senators Elizabeth Warren — who consulted Rebecca Cokley of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress for her plan, and was subsequently endorsed by Cokley — and Bernie Sanders had put out regarding the rights of people with disabilities.
Landers talked about the Vermont senator, whom she voted for in the Democratic primary, with conviction and a tinge of wistfulness. Sanders met with people with disabilities all over the country and really listened to their concerns, she said. She saw him as a candidate who strived to expand access for all Americans — from his grand policy ideas of single-payer healthcare and free college education to having an ASL interpreter at his rallies, “his campaign was about making sure there was access,” Landers said. “That, to me, I loved.”
But she never questioned voting for the Democratic nominee, whoever it was. Trump, Landers said, point-blank “does not care about the disabled community.”
“There are differences that could have been had,” she said about the primary. “But we are where we are, and it is Biden versus the man in office, and Biden has to win. We will not survive another four years.”