Bemidji-based Able To Vote strives to increase voter turnout in the disability community
For Grace Gouker Littlefield, the 2021 election is not just about the candidates. It’s about who can vote for them. After about six years of working for tech startups on the West Coast, Gouker Littlefield returned to her hometown of Bemidji in 2018 “to be of service to my community”. She found her vocation as the founder and general manager of Able to vote, (abletovote.org), a non-partisan nonprofit organization that works to increase voter turnout among eligible voters with disabilities by giving them the resources, support and information they need to vote. She shares more about her homecoming, her organization’s big goals, and why Minnesota is # 1 in an area that shouldn’t give us a sense of pride.
Q: Coming back to Bemidji after years with tech startups including Airbnb must have looked a bit like reverse culture shock. What made you back down?
A: In 2016, I became much more interested in elections and civic engagement in general. I started to focus on engagement work as a volunteer and started a non-profit organization with friends and colleagues. But I wanted to come back here to see what I could do for the disability community, of which I am a part, and the Bemidji community in general.
Q: How do you define the disability community?
A: People who have identified themselves as having a disability are part of the disability community. It is very broad and broad and diverse. If we want to change the barriers that exist, not just to voting but in other ways, we must work in solidarity and support each other.
Q: What are the main obstacles to voting? What does the research tell you?
A: Usually every two or four years a few big voting reports on people with disabilities are released, but the existing data is not very concise on individual state barriers. We know that what is happening all over the United States, including Minnesota, is that there are many reasons people don’t vote. Caregivers may not inform them that they can vote, or they may be mistakenly told that they cannot vote because of their disability. Accessible transportation is obviously one of the biggest issues; to obtain insurance coverage, the trip must be for a medical need and the vote is a non-medical need. Then there are problems of accessibility to the voting booths.
A: Sometimes people cannot even enter, or the accessible voting booths are not set up properly or are too high. Or election officials are not trained in the use of accessible technologies, such as Braille ballots. This can be difficult in many ways.
Q: How many voters are we talking about?
A: In any given national election, there are 2.35 million voters who do not vote because of barriers or because they do not feel committed. In Minnesota, we have a great overall attendance – 80%. But we also have the largest gap between voters with disabilities and those without in the country, at 19.5%, according to research by Schur & Kruse / Rutgers. These numbers indicate a real lack of support, education, information and service for voters with disabilities, which we aim to address.
Q: Not the kind of # 1 we want to brag about. What’s going on in Minnesota?
A: Transportation is the biggest barrier for most voters with disabilities. But also, people who live in group homes, for example, will not necessarily be aware. They may not even know that there are elections they can participate in. The lives of many people with disabilities can be quite complicated, and sometimes people are isolated from their communities.
Q: Has postal voting in 2020 due to the pandemic made a positive difference in your community?
A: Certainly, voting on people with disabilities has seen a significant increase and the turnout gap has narrowed in 2020. Unfortunately, what we are seeing this year is more flexible voting policies being canceled because city and state governments don’t think they are necessary. more. I feel like this reversion is based more on political arguments, so people with disabilities and other voters cannot get the help they need or get to the polls in general. Everyone who is eligible should have easy access to the vote.
Q: How are you working to reduce barriers to voting?
A: This fall, we did some awareness raising to get people used to voting. We want to help them make a plan, perhaps before Election Day, to request an accessible or mail-in ballot form as needed so they can feel ready to vote, get secure transportation, review their ballot and generally be prepared to vote in each election. Senders post general information on how to vote. Our number is there, if they want to make an individualized plan. We’ve included Secretary of State information, deadlines and more. We really hope that if anyone is considering voting that they know we are there to help them.
Q: What are your expansion plans?
A: We are currently focused on increasing voter turnout for our target demographic across Minnesota. But next year, we plan to expand to multiple states for the midterms of 2022, and nationwide in 2024 for the next general election.
Q: How can we help you be successful?
A: We always welcome volunteers. But the best way to help is to go and vote yourself. Early voting has started and the election is on November 2. Please go and vote.