Voters with Disabilities and the 2016 Presidential Election

Voters with Disabilities and the 2016 Presidential Election

Rutgers researchers discuss how the presidential candidates’ sharply different approaches to the disability community may affect voter turnout

On Nov. 8, 35.4 million people with disabilities will be eligible to vote, representing about one-sixth of the electorate.
When Donald Trump mocked a disabled New York Times reporter last year, he ignited a firestorm in the disability community. Hillary Clinton responded with a television ad featuring a well-known disability rights advocate, and she recently introduced a plan to increase job opportunities for people with disabilities. Rutgers Today asked Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations Professors Douglas Kruse and Lisa Schur about their latest research on the political participation of people with disabilities and how the candidates' actions could influence voter turnout.

Have you ever seen a presidential election with so much focus on the disability community?

Schur: People with disabilities are definitely receiving more attention in this election.  Disability has long been a bipartisan issue in the U.S., as shown by the strong support from both Republicans and Democrats for the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and the 2008 ADA Amendments Act, which expanded the definition of disability to cover more people. So disability has not been a significant partisan issue in past elections, but that changed this year with the controversy created by Trump's behavior and the focus by Clinton on policies to expand employment for people with disabilities.

You've analyzed mountains of federal data to project the total number of eligible voters with disabilities, nationwide and on a state-by-state basis. What are your significant findings?

Douglas Kruse
Kruse: Based on Census data, we project that 35.4 million people with disabilities will be eligible to vote on Nov. 8, representing about one-sixth of the electorate.  Perhaps more importantly, we project 62.7 million eligible voters who either have disabilities or household members with disabilities, representing over one-fourth of the electorate.  This is important because family members of people with disabilities are often very motivated to take action on disability issues, so disability can motivate the whole family.  We find large numbers of people with disabilities in every age, racial, and ethnic group.  In addition, there are large numbers of people with disabilities in every state, ranging from 12.7 percent of the electorate in Nebraska to 24.1 percent in West Virginia.

What kinds of disabilities are taken into account?

Schur: We use the Census Bureau's six questions that identify mobility impairments, cognitive impairments, hearing impairments, visual impairments, and general activity limitations inside and outside the home.

Lisa Schur
What kinds of obstacles do people with disabilities encounter when they go to vote and how does that affect turnout?

Kruse: Our 2012 national post-election survey found that 30 percent of voters with disabilities reported some type of difficulty in voting at a polling place, compared to 8 percent of voters without disabilities.  The most common problems reported were difficulty in reading or seeing the ballot, or understanding how to vote or use voting equipment.  Some of these problems can be avoided by voting by mail, and people with disabilities are more likely than those without disabilities to vote by mail, but a majority of voters both with and without disabilities say they prefer to vote at a polling place.

Do you believe turnout among people with disabilities will be higher this year because of the candidates' actions?

Schur: Probably yes, because of the way disability has become an issue in this campaign, along with the strong efforts by the disability community to increase turnout.

– Steve Flamisch


To reach Douglas Kruse and Lisa Schur, contact Steve Flamisch, steve.flamisch@smlr.rutgers.edu or 848.252.9011.