“People with disabilities are the ticking time bomb of the electorate.”

So says Stanford law researcher Rabia Belt, who has new research on the disenfranchisement of disabled Americans. The intersection of disability and citizenship – in history and in the here-and-now – is, in Belt’s view, part of a great unseen in law and democracy.

Rabia Belt

Stanford’s Rabia Belt is a legal historian whose recent scholarship focuses on disability and suffrage. (Image credit: Bruce Forrester Photography)

The number of disabled individuals in this country is sobering – about 50 million and counting. And in the lead-up to the 2016 election, the nation is ill prepared to accommodate them, said Belt, who joined Stanford Law School last year as a research fellow to finish her dissertation before she takes up her position as an assistant professor teaching disability law and criminal law at the school in June.

Some 3 million votes will be lost because citizens with disabilities are less likely to vote, according to Belt. The situation isn’t expected to improve either: Up to 35 percent of all voters in the next 25 years will need some form of accommodation.

For example, substandard accommodations at the polls – from inadequate parking to large crowds and waiting times – are common and often deal-breakers for disabled voters. On top of this, many states bar people from voting based on often arbitrary standards about their mental health. These issues, Belt found, have roots in the past.

“When it comes to disability, we don’t really know the history. It doesn’t occur to us to ask, ‘Who is the Thurgood Marshall of the disability movement?’ There is no public consciousness relating to one of the largest minority groups in the country,” she said.

Barriers to voting

Belt is helping to build that awareness both as an advocate for the disabled – she sits on the board of the Disability Rights Bar Association – and as a legal historian who has plumbed the depths of disability and suffrage.

Her writings include a forthcoming article in the June issue of Stanford Law Review, where she examines the barriers to voting that disabled citizens often face – and the paucity of effective remedies and action. Her efforts to shine a light on the problems of the disabled include a 2012 article in the Rutgers University Law Review that takes the acclaimed HBO crime drama The Wire to task for giving short shrift to the problems of poor people and people of color with disabilities.

“Long lines at the polling place are not just an inconvenience; they make voting an impossibility for some people with impairments such as physical frailty or old age.”

— Rabia Belt

Belt has also done groundbreaking research into the long history of disenfranchisement of the disabled, putting into historical context the challenges for many in this election year.

Expanding upon work in her dissertation, she is preparing a book manuscript that chronicles a century of skirmishing over the voting rights of “idiots” and “lunatics” – terms then used to describe persons suffering from mental disabilities – as well as physically disabled and elderly voters.

The story told by Belt in her book begins in 1819, when Maine became the first state to deny suffrage to the disabled, and concludes in 1920, when women won the right to vote for the first time. Along the way, she describes how black and women’s suffrage activists challenged their disenfranchisement based on their alleged inferior mental status.

Among the protagonists is Leroy Pitzer, the pawn in a court battle in 1905 over a voter referendum to ban the sale of liquor in a saloon-peppered village in Ohio. The case turns on efforts by tavern owners to prove that Pitzer – a local who had voted with the “drys” – was mentally disentitled to vote under the Ohio constitution.

Pitzer is forced to endure a circus-like trial, in Belt’s telling, with newspapers mocking his testimony as “amusement” and medical doctors on both sides offering conflicting opinions about his state of mind. A judge juggles 29 definitions of “insanity” or “idiocy” and, without stating which he adopted, declares Pitzer incompetent.

Unconventional approach

Notably, this and other stories were found by Belt in an unconventional way, dug out of the files of rural county courthouses or old newspapers. Emblematic of a growing crop of historians, she is showing new and valuable perspectives not found in law books and other conventional legal research sources.

“That was one of the greatest ideas that came out of her dissertation: To look at the law you have to go outside LexisNexis and the online repositories,” said Matthew Lassiter, a University of Michigan history professor who was on Belt’s dissertation committee. “The words that come to mind when I think about her are iconoclastic, provocative and brilliant.”

Remnants of the disturbing truths she unearthed are still around – and still quite daunting. More than 30 states disenfranchise people based on often arbitrary standards about their mental health.

Voting laws today

Belt found that inadequate accommodations at the polls – a lack of parking, large crowds and long waiting times – often keep the disabled from exercising their votes.

“Long lines at the polling place are not just an inconvenience; they make voting an impossibility for some people with impairments such as physical frailty or old age,” Belt wrote in her upcoming Stanford Law Review article, “Contemporary Voting Rights Controversies Through the Lens of Disability.”

The legal system’s response to the injustice has been decidedly mixed. Disabled voters gained new protections under the Help America Vote Act of 2002, although the Justice Department has not brought a single case under the law alleging violations pertaining to the disabled, Belt said.

Rather than increasing access to voting, lawmakers seem to be doing just the opposite, she said.

Strict voter ID laws popular in a growing number of states and aimed at cutting down on fraud at the polls are falling hardest on disabled voters, who are less likely to have the requisite documentation. Paradoxically, disabled citizens still wanting to cast ballots have to vote absentee, a process that studies have shown is especially subject to fraud and manipulation, Belt said.

History is also repeating itself in one other important way – a shared philosophy about who should be entitled to vote, she suggested.

“We could think of voting as so important that we make sure everyone is able to vote. But we also could say, ‘Voting is so important that we want to purify the electorate and make it hard for people to vote,’” Belt says. “I think there is a long history of the second phenomenon being true. We still see that today.”

Rick Schmitt is a freelance writer for the Stanford Lawyer magazine.

Media Contacts

Rabia Belt, Stanford Law School: (734) 308-7252 or (650) 725-6111, belt@law.stanford.edu

Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, cbparker@stanford.edu