The In-Person Voting Challenges Faced by Chronically Ill and Disabled American Voters

Four voters share the problems they experience when placing their votes.

Election Day is just days away, and millions of Americans are expected to vote (or already voted) despite a pandemic that continues to take its toll.

While the coronavirus is a threat to everyone, voters with disabilities and chronic conditions are generally more susceptible not just to contracting the virus but also to developing serious complications from it. This isn't a small population: half of all American adults have a chronic health condition, and a quarter of the population lives with a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Voting has always been more difficult for many disabled or chronically ill people; according to the Government Accountability Office, 60% of polling places were inaccessible to disabled voters in some way in 2016. This year, the ongoing pandemic adds an extra obstacle to getting to the ballot box. Some states don't offer the option to vote early and in-person to avoid Election Day crowds, and others strictly limit who can vote by mail. Both options would be safer for people with compromised immune systems or who have mobility or mental health challenges.

All this is happening in an election year that has put health care topics at the forefront, including the future of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). With this in mind, Health spoke to four people who live with a disability or chronic condition to understand how and why they're voting this election, plus get their thoughts on how to vote safely when health issues make it a challenge.

Kerri Christian, 35, Voting by Mail in Missouri

Kerri Churchill

I've been unable to work due to my disability since November 2018; my full-time job now is being a mom, wife, and chronic illness patient. I'm living with anxiety, depression, chronic pain from a back injury at 21, PTSD, non-epileptic seizures, and fibromyalgia. After losing my dream job as an elementary special education teacher, I also lost my income, insurance, stability, and independence. I can't drive or even go out in public alone because of the possibility of having a seizure.

When I was younger, I always voted in person on the day of the election. But my husband and I have voted by mail in the past two elections because accessibility is not always easy for me. Even if a building is accessible, finding parking near the entrance usually leaves me flustered. In Missouri, disabled people and their caretakers have the option to make mail-in voting their permanent voting method.

Advocating for marginalized communities is very important to me and should be to everyone. My motivation to vote is driven by the understanding that we need to unify as a country, and we need to care for citizens who are currently suffering at alarming rates. There are so many minority groups that are not being represented, but if we all stood together and voted with one another in mind, then this election could be a huge win.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, 47, Voting by Mail in Washington State

Jeannine Gailey

I was diagnosed with asthma at 20, a hereditary bleeding disorder at 30, primary immunodeficiency (a condition that weakens the immune system and allows infections to happen more easily) in my thirties, and multiple sclerosis three years ago.

My asthma and primary immune deficiency combined have meant that I've suffered about 20 bouts of pneumonia between my college years and now, leaving me with permanent lung scarring. My MS makes me mobility impaired (I was in a wheelchair at first; I have worked back up through years of physical therapy to walking with a cane). I also have brain damage that has given me life-altering vertigo as well as problems feeling my hands and feet. My bleeding disorder means that any major wound could kill me.

Because of these debilitating conditions, I will vote the way that all Washington State voters do: by mail. Washington State has done voting by mail since 2004 and I love it. Not only does it keep me from having to stand in long lines, which is bad for my legs, but I'm also voting away from crowds, where I could contract an illness more easily.

Voting by mail is also best for me because I feel I can do more research on individuals and propositions up for election when I have the ballot in front of me at home. I voted in person in Ohio in my twenties, when you have five minutes to make up your mind in the voting booth. I consider myself a fairly well-informed voter, but I don't know every judge's record by heart once I get to the voting booth. Voting by mail allows you to check your candidates' voting records on ADA requirements as well while you're at home.

Regardless of your voting method, make a plan. Ask questions ahead of time to make sure your vote, however you vote, is counted. My MS causes a tremor, so I have to be careful with my signature. If your current signature doesn't match previous signatures, it can be thrown out—so don't just dash it off, take your time.

If you're disabled or immunocompromised by a chronic condition and you have to vote in person, my advice is to wear gloves, a mask, and yeah, I'll say it, probably goggles or a face shield. Make sure to remain socially distanced as much as possible. Try not to be intimidated if you're voting in person. If it helps, partner with an able-bodied friend or relative and go together to vote. Every voting location is not wheelchair accessible, although they are supposed to be, so visit it in advance to find out.

Emily O., 27, Voting Early in Indiana

Emily O

I have an invisible and wildly misunderstood disabling chronic illness—endometriosis. This illness is painful. It completely disrupted my life in every way. I was officially diagnosed in 2017 but had my first surgery with a specialist this past summer. I have a weak immune system from the condition itself, and being in recovery from surgery makes me vulnerable to this pandemic.

I am a first-generation American and I just got my citizenship in 2017. The first election I voted in was the midterms in 2018, so this is my first presidential election. Despite my debilitating condition, I am voting early because I don't want to risk being in a crowd and getting COVID. If you want progressive change, in the long run, voting is a step on that journey."

Jaini Thompson, 55, Voting Early in Texas

Jaini Thompson

I've been disabled since 2009. I was diagnosed with mitral valve prolapse (improper closure of a heart valve) when I was in ninth grade and had open heart surgery to repair it when I was 48. I've also had bipolar depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, and anxiety for as long as I can remember. I have numerous gastrointestinal issues that put me in the hospital at least once a year. I can't walk or stand for very long.

With my anxiety, I can't stay in the same position for more than about 10 minutes. That makes even getting a mani-pedi difficult. I'm pretty much always tired and afraid of just about everything. Crowds are very hard for me. I have a state-provided aide that does my shopping for me. I'm on numerous medications, and the main side effect is that I feel like I have no functioning brain cells.

I voted early and I've always voted early. I never know if I'm going to be hospitalized on Election Day, so my vote is guaranteed to be counted. My health is the main factor in my voting decision since I am on Social Security Disability Insurance, Medicare, Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Meals on wheels. I need those services to live and thrive.

I suggest others like me vote early on a day that you're feeling well enough to. That way, if Election Day is a bad health day for you, your vote has already been cast and will be counted. Vote for a candidate that has your best interest at heart, and make a decision about who you'll be voting for before the day that you plan to vote.

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