Down Syndrome and Voting Rights: What You Need to Know

Down Syndrome and Voting Rights

Historically, people with intellectual disabilities faced significant discrimination and barriers to exercising their civil rights, including the right to vote.

With the passage of various federal laws like the Voting Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, people with Down syndrome now have the legal right to vote. However, accessibility barriers, lack of awareness, and state restrictions still make it difficult for some individuals to exercise that right fully.


History of Voting Rights

The right to vote has expanded dramatically throughout American history. At the country’s founding, voting was typically restricted to white male property owners over 21. Women, non-property owners, African Americans, and Native Americans were excluded.

The 15th Amendment in 1870 prohibited denying the right to vote based on race, extending suffrage to African American men. However, other barriers like poll taxes and literacy tests were enacted at the state level to suppress the black vote. The 19th Amendment in 1920 prohibited denying the right to vote based on sex, granting women’s suffrage nationwide. Native Americans were granted full citizenship and voting rights in 1924 under the Indian Citizenship Act, though some states continued to restrict Native American voting.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 aimed to overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote under the 15th Amendment. This landmark civil rights legislation helped remove obstacles like literacy tests and outlawed discriminatory voting practices that targeted minorities. The act brought millions of new voters to the polls and increased minority representation.

Additional amendments like the 23rd, 24th, and 26th expanded voting rights to District of Columbia residents, eliminated poll taxes and lowered the voting age nationally to 18. Ongoing advocacy has worked to protect and expand access to the polls for all eligible citizens.


Disability Rights Movement

The disability rights movement has played a pivotal role in securing voting rights for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities like Down syndrome. This civil rights movement began in the 1960s and 1970s, inspired by broader efforts to advance civil rights in the United States.

Some key events and legislation that emerged from the disability rights movement include:

  • Developmental Disabilities Services and Facilities Construction Amendments of 1970 – Provided federal funds to states to develop services for people with intellectual disabilities. This enabled more independent living opportunities outside of institutions.

  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 – Prohibited discrimination against people with disabilities by any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. This was the first US federal civil rights protection for people with disabilities.

  • Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 – Guaranteed a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment for children with disabilities. This enabled more children with Down syndrome to attend mainstream schools.

  • Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 – Provided comprehensive civil rights protections for people with disabilities, prohibiting discrimination in employment, public accommodations, transportation, telecommunications, and government services.

Through sustained advocacy and activism over several decades, the disability rights movement transformed attitudes. It paved the way for greater inclusion and participation of people with intellectual disabilities in all aspects of society, including exercising their right to vote.


Current Voting Laws

The right to vote is protected at the federal level for people with disabilities by two important laws – the Voting Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 to prohibit discrimination in voting based on race. In 1982, it was amended to also prohibit voting discrimination based on disability. This amendment specifically states that voter registration sites, polling locations, and voting materials must be accessible to people with disabilities.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990 to prohibit discrimination based on disability more broadly. Title II of the ADA requires state and local governments to make all their programs and services accessible to people with disabilities. This includes ensuring the accessibility of polling places and voting machines. The ADA also requires reasonable accommodations to be provided if requested by a voter with a disability.

So in summary, current federal laws protect the right of people with disabilities, including Down syndrome, to vote by requiring polling places, voting methods, and registration to be made fully accessible. Discrimination in voting based on disability is prohibited under these landmark civil rights laws.


State-Level Restrictions

While federal law prohibits discrimination against voters with disabilities, some states still have restrictions that can make it more difficult for people with Down syndrome to vote.

A few states require voters to show photo ID at polling places, which can pose challenges for some individuals with Down syndrome who may not have an ID or have difficulty obtaining one. Some states have also reduced early voting periods and voting by mail options, which are helpful for voters who need more time or assistance.

Additionally, a lack of training for poll workers in assisting voters with disabilities continues to be an issue in many states. Poll workers may be unaware of accessibility requirements or how to appropriately help voters with disabilities. This can lead to confusion and difficulties on election day.

Advocacy groups encourage checking your state’s voting laws in advance to understand your rights and any potential barriers to voting. Reaching out to local election officials and disability organizations can help ensure polling places are accessible and poll workers are prepared to assist voters with disabilities. Remaining active and reporting any voting issues is key to reducing restrictions over time. With preparation and support, the voting process can be simplified.


Accessibility at Polling Places

Polling places in the United States have historically lacked accessibility for people with disabilities. This has made it difficult or impossible for some citizens with disabilities to exercise their right to vote.

However, there have been significant improvements in accessibility over the past few decades thanks to legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act and advocacy from disability rights organizations. All polling places are now required to meet certain accessibility standards.

Some common accessibility accommodations at polling places may include:

  • Entrance ramps and curb cuts allow wheelchair access

  • Doors with automatic openers or that are propped open to remove barriers

  • Wide doorways and corridors for wheelchair navigation

  • Accessible parking spaces close to the entrance

  • Seating for voters who have difficulty standing for long periods

  • Accessible voting machines with features like touchscreens, audio instructions, and handheld controllers

  • Magnifying glasses or ballot magnifiers for visually impaired voters

  • Sign language interpreters for deaf voters

There is still room for improvement when it comes to polling place accessibility. Disability advocates recommend surveying each location to identify any barriers and develop solutions. With creative problem-solving and a commitment to inclusion, we can ensure polling places are accessible to all eligible voters.


Assistance Options

Disabled voters, including those with Down syndrome, have several options for receiving assistance to vote if needed.

  • Poll workers – Poll workers at voting locations are trained to assist voters, including reading ballots aloud, explaining how to fill out a ballot, and assisting with any accessibility devices at the polling place. Voters can request assistance from poll workers at any time.

  • Assistive devices – Many polling places have assistive devices available such as magnifiers or wheelchair accessible voting booths. Voters can inquire about using these devices to make voting easier.

  • A person of your choice – Voters with disabilities are permitted to bring a person of their choice into the voting booth to assist in casting their vote. This person cannot be the voter’s employer or union representative. The assistant will be required to take an oath to not influence the voter’s choices.

  • Curbside voting – If a voter is unable to enter the polling location due to a disability, they can request curbside voting. Poll workers will bring voting materials outside to the voter in their vehicle to allow them to cast their ballot.

  • Absentee voting – Voters with disabilities may choose to vote absentee by mail or in person at an elections office or other designated location. This allows the voter to receive any needed assistance in a private setting.

Ensuring voters with disabilities understand their options for assistance is crucial for enabling their right to vote independently and privately. With the proper support, people with Down syndrome can fully participate in the voting process.


Promoting Awareness

Organizations and advocacy groups have launched initiatives to promote voting awareness and engagement in the disability community. These efforts aim to educate people with disabilities on their right to vote and provide resources to make the process more accessible.

One example is the REV UP campaign by the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN). This nonpartisan initiative encourages voter registration and turnout among eligible voters with disabilities. The campaign provides toolkits, social media graphics, and posters to help disability organizations and advocates spread the word.

Disability advocacy groups have also created plain-language voting guides to explain the process in easy-to-understand terms for people with intellectual disabilities. For instance, Self Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE) published a step-by-step voting guide using clear language and images. Resources like these help ensure people with disabilities can fully participate in the democratic process.

Other efforts involve holding voting education events at disability service organizations, independent living centers, and group homes. These workshops walk through how to register, find polling locations, ask for accommodations, and cast a private ballot. Some events also provide hands-on experience with sample ballots and voting machines.

Promoting inclusion and civic participation has been an important goal. While laws protect voting rights, continued outreach and education are key to empowering voters with disabilities. Through greater awareness and support, people with disabilities can feel confident exercising their right to vote.


Overcoming Challenges

Voting with Down syndrome comes with its own set of challenges, but there are ways to overcome them.

  • Transportation – Rely on family, friends, or local disability advocacy groups for rides to polling places. Many localities also provide free transportation services.

  • Physical accessibility – Contact your local election board ahead of time to ensure your polling place is accessible. If not, request an alternative accessible site.

  • Understanding the ballot – Bring a support person to assist with reading and filling out the ballot. Sample ballots are also available ahead of time to review.

  • Communication difficulties – Let poll workers know you may need extra time, reading assistance, or pen and paper for communication. They are required to accommodate your needs.

  • Guardianship status – Some with Down syndrome have legal guardians, which does not preclude voting rights. Bring documentation to verify eligibility if needed.

  • Intimidation – Don’t let polling place workers unlawfully deny your vote. Politely stand your ground and request a supervisor if needed. Report any violations.

With some preparation and assertiveness, obstacles to voting can be overcome. Tap into resources from disability advocates, election boards, and support personnel to exercise your civic rights. The payoff of participating in the democratic process makes it worthwhile.



Progress has been made in accessibility, but more can be done to make voting truly inclusive. People with Down syndrome may face challenges in exercising their right to vote. With proper support, education, and accommodations, these challenges can be overcome. Voting is both a civil right and civic responsibility for all eligible citizens, regardless of disability.

The takeaway is that people with Down syndrome have the legal right to vote. Efforts must continue to ensure they have meaningful access to exercise that right. Voting enables people with Down syndrome to have a voice in our democracy. Their participation strengthens and enriches our elections and represents an important milestone in the disability rights movement. With awareness and support, voting can become a reality for more people with Down syndrome.

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