Lehigh Co. DA’s prosecution threats over drop-boxes could disenfranchise disabled voters | Opinion

People living with disabilities often need someone to drop off their ballots for them. And they’re allowed that help

Pennsylvania is redesigning its mail-in ballots for 2024. (Capital-Star photo)

By Peri Jude Radecic

Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin recently warned voters detectives will surveil drop boxes, and if voters are observed dropping off more than one ballot, they may face fines and jail time.

This followed Martin’s announcement that in the past election, “hundreds” of people broke the law when they deposited multiple ballots into drop boxes. Missing in these statements was any mention that people are allowed to drop off someone else’s ballot to assist a person with a disability.

A designated agent is someone who goes to the county election office on the voter’s behalf to effectuate the process of voting. Anyone with a disability that prevents him or her from applying for, obtaining, or returning a mail-in ballot is entitled to use a designated agent.

Designated agents are a necessary accommodation for anyone with a disability who wishes to vote through the mail but cannot do so without assistance.

Lehigh County controller: Plan to monitor ballot drop-off boxes would ‘intimidate voters’

According to data from the Election Assistance Commission, voters with disabilities are more likely to vote by mail. Data from the 2020 General Election showed that 53 percent of people with disabilities voted by mail, compared to 42 percent of the general population.

The statements of District Attorney Martin and his threat of criminal sanctions, issued against a backdrop of ongoing fraud claims from legislators, risks disenfranchising voters with disabilities.

Widespread use of designated agents is a new phenomenon as mail in voting has become more available. In the 2020 General Election, Disability Rights Pennsylvania fielded many calls about designated agents. Both voters and county election officials were confused about who is entitled to use an agent, and under what circumstances. Some disabled voters did not know agents were an accommodation available to them.

For people with disabilities, the right to assistance returning their ballot is fundamental to their ability to vote by mail.

Others knew of their right to use an agent but were afraid to do so for fear that they or their agent would be accused of engaging in “fraud.”

As recent events have made clear, such fears were warranted. They may become more pronounced this election cycle, as the discourse around fraud and ballot harvesting intensifies.

For people with disabilities, the right to assistance returning their ballot is fundamental to their ability to vote by mail, and this right is protected by federal law. Designated agents, including those agents who mistakenly assist multiple individuals with disabilities, ensure disabled voters have a say in our democracy.

Lehigh County DA to monitor ballot drop-off boxes for violators

The Department of State has provided little guidance on the use of designated agents, other than providing a form.  On the form where voters authorize a designated agent to assist them, it says, “an agent is only allowed to serve as a designated agent for ONE voter[.]”

Given that, it is irrational to expect the public to have a perfect understanding of designated agent rules. Agents who are not aware of or who do not understand the rules, and who help more than one voter with a disability are not fraudsters or criminals. They are well-intentioned people trying to prevent their loved ones from being disfranchised.

Rather than lob accusations of voter fraud at people who mistakenly assist more than one voter with a disability, or worse yet, criminalize their actions, the Commonwealth must provide training to the counties and create an education campaign about designated agents.

This is where Pennsylvania should focus its resources, rather than on the fruitless task of surveilling drop boxes.

Officials must fight back against attempts to frame a disability accommodation as fraud, or to criminalize ignorance of Department of State policy. Failing to do so will only lead to the disenfranchisement of voters with disabilities across the Commonwealth.

Peri Jude Radecic is the CEO of Disability Rights Pennsylvania.  Radecic has three decades of passion and advocacy in civil rights with a focus in the areas of disability, LGBTQ, and women’s rights. Radecic writes from Harrisburg.

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.