My brother and I sat in stiff chairs in a government office, a clipboard of paperwork in front of us. He’d recently moved, and we were there to sign him up for health care. Flipping through the papers, he came upon a voter-registration form.
“People like me can vote?” my brother asked.
I had to look away from him for a moment so that I wouldn’t cry in the middle of the waiting room. Like millions of Americans, my older brother lives with a disability. He was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, which means he hears voices and battles mood fluctuations. He also struggles with some learning disabilities that resulted when doctors used forceps to help deliver him as a baby. Thanks to good doctors, medication and a remarkable day program, he is doing well. He is strong, compassionate and funny. He watches the news and is well informed; we’ve discussed the Islamic State, North Korea, the poor, jobs, what to do about the homeless and the presidential campaign. But he didn’t know he could vote.
When I was certain I could answer him in a steady voice, I responded. “One hundred percent yes. You can vote,” I said. “As long as you haven’t been declared incompetent by a court of law, you have the same rights as I do and everyone else in this country. Fill it out, and we’ll vote together on primary day.”
My brother wrote his name and address, and he even checked the box marked “Democratic Party.”
“Congratulations,” I said. “You’re a registered voter.”
Hearing that my brother didn’t know his rights made me long for the sound of the shame bell on “Game of Thrones.” I was a speechwriter in politics for many years. I have crisscrossed this country and met Americans of all kinds: a mother in Iowa who covered her sweater with buttons showing her son who died in the Iraq War; men and women who lived under the overpasses and in the alleys of Boston when I helped with a late-night homeless census. I collected signatures for Ted Kennedy and knocked on doors for Al Gore in New Hampshire, where I was greeted by a man with a smile and a shotgun. I made calls on Election Day to get people to the polls. I made sure seniors had rides. I paid attention to every person and potential voter I met. But I’d missed someone important close to home. I’d always asked my brother, “Who do you like?” “What do you think of so-and-so?” But I’d never asked him if he voted.
So when primary day came, I kept my promise. We walked over to our polling station at the elementary school around the corner. We went inside a gym with a creaky floor and a fan blowing musty, hot air. My brother pulled out his voter-registration card, passport, Social Security card, bank card and every ID he owned, just in case — he’d seen news reports about new strict voter laws. I smiled at the woman checking people in and the man handing out ballots. I said, “This is my brother’s first time voting.” When he said his name and that he was excited, I could tell by their expressions that they knew that my brother was someone who would need a little extra time. The woman found him on the list and crossed him off with a red pencil. The man handed my brother a ballot and gave him a few instructions, one about how to vote for a committee group. My brother handed me the ballot and said, “I don’t understand about the committee.” I asked the woman if I could help explain it to him and then come back to vote, and she said yes.
We moved down and placed my brother’s ballot on the table. I asked him, “Who are you voting for?” He said, “Secretary Clinton.” I pointed to the circle, told him to fill it in, and he said: “Oh, I understand now. Do the same with the committee, too.” I took him to where the booths were, and he placed his ballot on the table and picked up the pen. He was hunched over, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him stand taller. When he finished, he held his ballot with such pride, and his smile got bigger every time he looked at it. The man at the voting machine said, “Just slide it in and you’re done.” My brother did and gave the man and me a thumbs-up.
I asked my brother if he wanted to go home or stay and help me vote. He wanted to go back and catch a show on TV. I watched him walk out the door and choked up. How many men and women out there want to vote, but don’t because no one’s asked them to join them on Election Day, either?
Fourteen years after Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, it is still difficult for people with disabilities to exercise their rights. According to a report by the National Council on Disability, 1 in 5 voters with disabilities had trouble casting their ballots in 2012, nearly 40 percent experienced physical barriers at their polling locations, about half encountered problems with voting machines and technology, and 25 percent experienced poor treatment by poll workers.
Another survey following the 2012 elections showed worse results: Thirty percent of voters with disabilities reported difficulty voting compared with 8 percent of voters without disabilities. The most frequently cited issues were reading or seeing the ballot, and understanding how to use the equipment.
We know how to fix this disparity. Researchers have told us that we can improve accessibility and increase voter turnout by making sure our poll workers and election officials are better informed; improving physical accommodations with ramps and adequate maneuvering space, among other things; and allowing voting by mail without requiring the voter to disclose a disability.
But people without disabilities have a responsibility to our siblings, parents, friends, co-workers and neighbors. We all know someone. We have to pay attention and ask questions. Are you registered? Do you want to vote? Do you want help on Election Day?
At any moment, we could become a person with a disability. A car accident could put us in a wheelchair, a misfired gun could destroy our hearing, the chemicals under our sinks could splatter and take our sight, a war could break our minds. This is why we have to ensure that our voting experiences are equal. And guaranteeing that my brother got to exercise his right was the most powerful experience I’ve had in politics.
When he saw that Clinton had won Massachusetts, he was thrilled. He talked about voting at his day program and encouraged others to register. Nov. 8 is already marked on our calendars, and we can’t wait to take another walk on Election Day.