Chair Hughes and Members of the Committee,
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on SB 7. My name is Lauren Gerken, and I am a Public Policy Analyst for the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities (TCDD).
Established by state and federal law, TCDD is governed by 27 Governor-appointed board members, 60 percent of whom are individuals with developmental disabilities (DD) or family members of individuals with disabilities. The Council’s purpose in law is to encourage policy change so that people with disabilities have opportunities to be fully included in their communities and exercise control over their own lives.
TCDD identified the following policy priority for the 87th legislative session based on the needs and feedback of the disability community in Texas:
Ensure Texans with disabilities have equal access to voting by establishing more voting locations accessible to the community, considering proximity to bus routes and paratransit drop-off points, and publishing an absentee ballot application in an accessible format. Establish and maintain accountability measures for noncompliant voting locations and poll workers.
Unfortunately, TCDD is concerned that, as currently written, SB 7 fails to ensure that Texans with disabilities have equal access to voting, and certain sections of the bill run a high risk of violating federal laws protecting the rights of people with disabilities.
Requiring Proof of Disability
SB 7, Section 2.05 is attempting to establish a requirement that people with disabilities must provide documentation that proves they are disabled. Under the terms of the bill, acceptable proof is limited to written documentation from the United States Social Security Administration (SSA) or the United States Department of Veterans Affairs evidencing that the applicant has been determined to have a disability, or a certificate from a licensed physician or chiropractor or accredited Christian Science practitioner. However, the committee must consider that many people with a disability do not use social security and are not documented as disabled with SSA. This is particularly true for people with disabilities who recently turned 18 and have not applied for social security on grounds of disability yet. Those who need to then pursue a doctor’s note will likely face costs associated with a doctor’s visit, as SB 7 does not guarantee a free visit specifically for documentation acquisition. If Texas pursues this requirement, it will appear to be in violation of the ADA’s Title II, which prohibits entities from charging a surcharge for providing an auxiliary aid or service (e.g., vote by mail).
Moreover, SB 7 lacks guidance on how proof of disability will be handled and stored. The legislation would require county clerks to work with information that falls under the protection of HIPAA laws, and the mishandling of such information would make counties vulnerable to costly lawsuits. It is not reasonable to place such a heavy and unnecessary burden on poll workers and county officials.
Some people with disabilities require support or assistance when casting their ballot. Assistance looks different for each voter. Someone may need a ride to the polls, someone to read the ballot aloud to accommodate an intellectual disability, or someone to press buttons on the ballot because of arthritis. Many people bring an aide or loved one with them, and some may request assistance from a friendly poll worker. However, Sections 3.07, 3.09, and 3.10 of SB 7 may make even finding someone who is willing to provide assistance extremely difficult.
Section 3.07 authorizes partisan poll watchers to electronically record voters when the watcher “reasonably believes” the voter is unlawfully receiving assistance. However, it does not consider that many poll watchers may have no experience supporting someone with a disability, and may misunderstand what they are observing. For example: a support person, who has the voter’s independence and civil rights as their top priority, knows the voter they are assisting requires the ballot read aloud slowly. The voter has Autism, and they simply require more time to process information. A poll watcher, unfamiliar with Autism and support needs, may interpret the assister’s slow reading as coercion. To the poll watcher, it sounds like the support person is trying to get the voter to question her choices, and they report the interaction as unlawful assistance. As a result, the support person may be penalized, and the voter may not get the assistance they need to exercise their rights.
Section 3.09 affects the voter who cannot drive themselves to the polls and uses curbside voting. This section requires curbside voters to be alone in the car from which they are voting, or that anyone with them in the car completes and signs a form affirming “that the voter is physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or likelihood of injuring the voter’s health,” and containing the person’s name and address and whether the person is also serving as an assister to the voter.
Many people with disabilities use popular rideshares to get to the polls because they are cost-effective and promote independence. It is not reasonable to require rideshare drivers, for example, to get out of their own vehicle while a person votes. It is also unreasonable to require that driver, who is likely a stranger to the voter, to affirm to the information above. By establishing the requirements in Section 3.09, many voters with disabilities who cannot drive will likely struggle to cast their ballots.
Section 3.10 faces all the issues listed above. This section states that people who assist voters, such as a support person (either family, friend, aide, or poll worker), must complete a form with the following information: name and address, “the manner in which the person assisted the voter,” “the reason the assistance was necessary,” and their relationship to the voter.
Like Section 2.05, these requirements will potentially violate the ADA and HIPAA, opening the State of Texas up to a costly lawsuit. It will also discourage support persons from doing their job: helping a person with a disability exercise independence and their right to vote. As I stated previously, some people with disabilities need a little support. They should never be made to feel like those willing to help are risking something by doing so, or that their needs are a criminal activity.
While we appreciate the Texas Legislature’s commitment to voter integrity, TCDD asks that the committee fully consider the implications above on voters with disabilities from all parties.
Thank you again for your time. Please do not hesitate to contact TCDD with any questions.
Public Policy Analyst
Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities
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