House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer (MD) submitted testimony to the National Council on Disability's policy forum on voting access for people with disabilities. The panel received testimony this afternoon regarding the original intent of Congress in passing the Help America Vote Act, as well as thoughts regarding the next generation of voting rights laws. Below is the testimony Whip Hoyer submitted to the panel:
Let me start by thanking the National Council on Disability for everything it does to educate the Congress, the President, federal agencies, and state and local governments on policies, programs, practices, and procedures that affect people with disabilities. You are a relatively small agency, but the work you do has an extraordinary impact on the life of every American who lives with a physical or mental challenge.
As the lead House sponsor of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and the 2008 ADA Amendments Act, I can testify personally to the critical work you do. Indeed, ADA would not be the success it is today without NCD's contributions in the 1980s. The law that was enacted in 1990 was shaped in many ways, big and small, by NCD.
I appreciate the opportunity today to contribute to NCD's hearing on the topic of voting access for people with disabilities. In addition to working toward disability rights, I have dedicated much of my public career to advancing voting reform, which led in 2002 to the enactment of the Help America Vote Act. That law has as its central mission to make sure every eligible American has easy access to the polls and has his or her vote counted, including voters with disabilities.
HAVA specifically addressed the needs of disabled voters in two crucial ways.
First, it sought to make sure polling places are accessible by creating a grant program, administered by the Department of Health and Human Services, to make polling places accessible to persons with disabilities.
Second, it mandated in every polling place in the United States at least one machine that can provide all voters the ability to cast a ballot privately and independently.
These two pillars may sound simple and straightforward, but they were anything but simple at the time HAVA was negotiated.
HAVA was the product of almost two years of bipartisan, bicameral negotiation. Unbelievably, much of this time was focused on achieving these two provisions because of a lack of appreciation at the time for just how common it was for disabled voters to face physical obstacles gaining entry to polling places and, once in them, actually casting a ballot without the assistance of a poll worker, relative, or friend. It may be easy for some cynics to trivialize the discomfort a voter with a disability feels when he or she needs the help of someone else to cast a ballot. But the bottom line is that our democracy is based on the principle of the private ballot, the premise that the people's will can only be accurately registered when their votes are freely and privately cast, without fear of recrimination or manipulation.
Few have articulated the challenges faced by people with disabilities better than my good friend Jim Dickson, a true champion of equal access to the polls for all Americans. He memorably recounted his experience as a sight-impaired voter during testimony I heard in 2001 when the House was drafting HAVA:
"I am blind. Every day I walk down the street, catch a bus to go to work, get off at my stop, enter my building, board the elevator, push the button for my floor, enter my office, turn on my computer, download my emails, and begin my day at work. I do this every day, by myself. Millions of people just like me do these very same things, independently. But when I go to my polling place... Someone else has to cast my vote for me. Once, after my wife cast my ballot, she said to me, "Jim I knew that you loved me, but now I know you trust me because you think I marked your ballot for that idiot.'"
Without the tireless advocacy of Jim and others, the two provisions addressing the needs of disabled voters in HAVA would not have been achieved.
But make no mistake about it. HAVA is not perfect, and the voting experience for people with disabilities is still not equal to that of others, a fact that Jim has reminded me of frequently and that everyone who serves in elective office needs to know.
The biggest immediate challenge I believe voters face today, whether or not they are disabled, is the absence of a working Election Assistance Commission. HAVA established the EAC to help state and local election officials learn what works and what does not work when it comes to running elections and making sure every vote is counted. For reasons that frustrate me and every citizen who believes in HAVA, House and Senate Republican leaders have refused to recommend EAC nominees to the President and have blocked confirmation of nominations for the two Democratic seats on the Commission. I believe a fully functioning EAC can have a significant impact in helping states make their polling places accessible to all voters.
I also believe that Congress has a responsibility to continue funding HAVA programs, including the grant program to make polling places accessible to all Americans. It is unfortunate that sequestration cuts all programs across the board without accounting for our priorities. I hope that in the months ahead Democrats and Republicans can agree on a balanced deficit reduction plan that will end the sequester and ensure we are able to invest in critical areas, including HAVA. We must approve a budget and appropriations bills that provide the resources to fund HAVA at levels that will treat all voters the same. To that end, I requested that the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations Subcommittee include $17 million toward the implementation of HAVA programs in next year's budget.
We will never live in a perfect democracy, but every election must improve on the lessons learned from the last one. Today's hearing is part of that process, and I thank you.