WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Arc is deeply troubled by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Merrill v. People First of Alabama, effectively banning curbside voting in Alabama, a critical accommodation to ensure the health and safety of voters with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of voters with underlying health issues who were concerned about the health risks of in-person voting during COVID-19. Nearly 1.6 million people—almost half of the state’s electorate—are high-risk individuals who are more susceptible to death or serious illness from COVID-19 and are protected as individuals with disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). People First of Alabama—a group of people with developmental disabilities dedicated to self-determination and autonomy—served as an organizational plaintiff in the lawsuit to fight for the rights of people with disabilities in Alabama to receive the accommodations they need to access the polls.
“The Supreme Court’s decision endangers and disenfranchises voters with disabilities in Alabama who are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and experiencing life-threatening complications and death from the virus,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc. “The Arc has been a leader in fighting for the rights of people with disabilities during this pandemic and has long advocated for necessary accommodations that enable many with intellectual and developmental disabilities to exercise their right to vote—a right which has all too often been denied. We are deeply disappointed the Court would deny the option for such an important accommodation days before Election Day, and without legal explanation, thereby depriving more than one million people with disabilities in Alabama of equal access to the polls.”
Because of the risks it poses during the pandemic, Alabama’s in-person voting program is essentially inaccessible to voters with disabilities who face a heightened risk from COVID-19. Curbside voting allows voters to receive and return ballots from inside their vehicles, enabling them to avoid crowds of other voters and limit contact with poll workers, thereby limiting their exposure to the virus. This accommodation is especially critical during COVID-19, but it has also been a widespread practice in nearly thirty states and encouraged by the U.S. Department of Justice even before the pandemic as a reasonable accommodation for voters with disabilities who face a variety of barriers accessing polling places. While Alabama has an absentee voting program, the ADA still requires states to make in-person voting accessible to people with disabilities. Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Election Assistance Commission have recommended curbside voting as a safer alternative to traditional in-person voting during COVID-19.
The right to vote is fundamental. People with IDD have the right to participate in our democracy, though this right has all too often been denied. It shouldn’t have to come at serious risk to a person’s health or life. In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that “absentee and in-person voting are different benefits, and voters with disabilities are entitled to equal access to both” and quoted plaintiff Howard Porter, Jr., a Black man in his seventies with asthma and Parkinson’s, who told the district court: “‘[S]o many of my [ancestors] even died to vote. And while I don’t mind dying to vote, I think we’re past that – we’re past that time.’”
Ensuring voting independence, accuracy, and access are key issues for The Arc. Too many polling places and voting technology and practices throughout the country remain inaccessible and disenfranchise voters. To access resources for voters with disabilities during this election season, please visit our Voting page.
The Arc advocates for and serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD), including Down syndrome, autism, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, cerebral palsy and other diagnoses. The Arc has a network of over 600 chapters across the country promoting and protecting the human rights of people with I/DD and actively supporting their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes and without regard to diagnosis.
Editor’s Note: The Arc is not an acronym; always refer to us as The Arc, not The ARC and never ARC. The Arc should be considered as a title or a phrase.