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Confusion over mail-in voting could impact Texans with disabilities

Voting by mail

Disability is among factors like mobility, age, and confinement that can be used to qualify for the mail-in voting during the US Presidential Election slated in November, but activists are concerned that confusion over the definition of eligibility could place them at risk.

Texas law defines a disability as a “sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on Election Day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health.” It gets specific only in saying that “expected or likely confinement for childbirth on election day is sufficient.”

Aside from that, voters are largely left to interpret the law for themselves, says the news report in Texas Tribune.

“Individuals are being left up to themselves to make some pretty big eligibility decisions on their own, which can be nerve-wracking and make citizens very concerned about whether or not their choices are justifiable or not,” said Molly Broadway, voting rights specialist at Disability Rights Texas. “A lot of voters are concerned about, will they truly be seen as having a disability for those who do have disabilities?”

Texas is one of five states that hasn’t made mail-in ballots available to those afraid of contracting COVID-19. During a typical year, Texas is one of only 16 states that doesn’t offer no-excuse mail-in voting, which allows voters to request ballots for any reason.

Texans have had the option to cite disability as a reason to receive mail-in ballots since 1935, just two years after the first use of voting by mail. Advocates say the system may have some flaws, but it serves to increase access for many disabled people.

“Our recommendation to most people is, if you can vote by mail, we highly encourage it,” said Donna Meltzer, CEO of the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities. “We think that [helps] keep people with disabilities — who are much more vulnerable to contracting COVID or having greater health conditions — safe and healthy.”

In April, state Democrats and civil rights organizations argued in court that susceptibility to the coronavirus meets the state’s definition for disability. In May, the Texas Supreme Court sided with Attorney General Ken Paxton and ruled that lack of immunity to the virus is not a “physical condition,” and therefore, the risk of contracting the virus does not meet the state’s qualifications.

But the court also ruled that voters could evaluate their own health and medical history to determine if they should apply for mail-in ballots during the pandemic based on a disability, as long as they have a “correct understanding of the statutory definition of ‘disability.’”

Abhi Rahman, spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party, said he believes Texans are going to decide for themselves if they have conditions that qualify as disabilities for mail-in voting.

“Voters are smart enough to make their own decisions, whether or not they want to claim a disability, for whatever disability they might have,” Rahman said. “And really the secretary of state and election officials — they can’t check what the disability actually is. So if voters feel like they are disabled in any way, they should vote in whatever way they’re comfortable with voting in this election.”

Disability rights activists say they’re worried the confusion may deter at-risk Texans from voting, or cause them to needlessly put their health at risk to show up in person at the polls despite being eligible for mail-in voting.

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