Kentucky had the lowest voter turnout rate among people with disabilities in the November elections, according to a new report from Rutgers University.
In last November’s election, 42.5 percent of people in Kentucky with a disability voted, according to the report, which examined disability and voter turnout. That’s down from 48.5 percent seen in the 2012 elections.
Non-disabled voters had a turnout of 60.2 percent in 2016, down from 61.4 percent in 2012.
The gap between disabled and non-disabled Kentucky voters was nearly 18 percentage points, the largest gap of any state. That gap increased from 12.9 percentage points in 2012 to 17.6 points in 2016.
The Rutgers report defined disabilities as hearing or visual impairment; mental impairment; or difficulty walking, dressing, bathing or going outside alone.
Roughly 738,000 people with disabilities lived in Kentucky in 2015, according to the Disability Statistics Compendium, which compiles data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The bureau defines disabilities as having difficulties in hearing, vision, cognition, and mobility. There is no information from the state regarding how many registered voters are disabled.
Some of the states with the highest turnout for people with disabilities who voted include Nebraska, 70.4 percent, and Colorado, 69 percent.
Douglas Kruse, a Rutgers professor and co-author of the report, said it’s not just Kentucky that faces low voter turnout issues. In Indiana, 49.4 percent of disabled voters cast a ballot in last year’s election; in Tennessee, 47.1 percent of voters with disabilities voted.
Generally, “the low turnout among people with disabilities” is “due mainly to social isolation, lack of faith in public officials, and lack of accessible polling places,” Kruse said.
Kruse said, pending a full analysis, lower employment of people with disabilities in Kentucky could account for part of their lower turnout. He also said the role of lower income among people with disabilities plays a part as well.
Education also plays a huge role in whether or not people with disabilities vote, said Stella Beard, executive director of the Arc of Kentucky, a group that advocates for the rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“They assume that because they have a disability they can’t vote,” Beard said. “Barriers really come down to education on voting.”
According to the report, around one-third, or 35.7 percent, of registered voters with disabilities across the country cited “illness or disability” as the reason for not voting. Transportation issues were also a likely reason cited among those who are disabled.
In total, 16 million people with disabilities reported voting in elections across the U.S. last year, according to the Rutgers report.
Although Kentucky has made strides to increase accessibility to polls for those with disabilities — including a new law that allows additional options during the absentee voting window — there is still work to be done, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
Bradford Queen, director of communications for the Kentucky Secretary of State, said Kentucky takes the accessibility of polling places seriously.
Queen said Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes has pushed for legislation and partnerships to make voting more accessible to those with disabilities.
This past legislative session, Gov. Matt Bevin signed House Bill 319 into law, which allows voters due to age, disability or illness to go to their county clerk’s office and cast ballots in-person during the absentee voting window. Prior to the law, voters with disabilities could only cast absentee ballots by mail.
Grimes said in a press release following its signing that the law “will give thousands of voters who struggle with age, a disability or illness a path to have their voices heard by voting early via mail or in person.”
“There’s always more to do to make sure people can cast their vote independently and privately,” Queen said.
According to the report, if people with disabilities were to vote at the same rate as those without disabilities who share the same demographic characteristics such as employment status, there would be about 2.2 million more voters.
Kruse said potential solutions include: increased accessibility of polling places, mobile voting, training for election officials and poll workers, outreach and education and voting by mail.
“Given the social isolation of many people with disabilities, I think there’s a lot of promise in outreach efforts by disability organizations and others to overcome the isolation and create greater community connections,” Kruse said.