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Disabled Voters in the 2016 Online Election: Wired Citizens or Digital Outcasts?

Fri, September 1, 12:00 to 1:30pm, Hilton Union Square, Union Square 14


This paper examines the experience of U.S. voters with disabilities with digital campaigning in the 2016 presidential election. As digital campaigning plays an increasingly central role in democratic elections, it is important to understand the impact that this shift from traditional to online and hybridized electioneering tactics has on social groups that historically have been prevented from participating equally in elections by systemic barriers. Since at least 2008, U.S. presidential candidates – particularly Democrats – have invested in specific efforts to reach out to the American disability community online. Initiatives such as “People with disabilities for Obama” virtual groups in 2008 and 2012 reflected the fact that there are now 34.5 million registered voters with disabilities in the U.S. Mobilizing this large and politically diverse constituency is complex and challenging even for major, resource-rich campaigns, but also critical in any election. In the most recent election cycle, Donald Trump’s mocking of a disabled reporter during a rally in North Carolina catapulted disability to the forefront of the presidential campaign. The Clinton campaign sought to capitalize on this episode by including a large amount of highly detailed disability policy content on its website, inviting speakers with disabilities to the Democratic convention, and scheduling a major speech on disability and mental health by the candidate in September 2016. At the same time, disability advocacy organizations and grassroots activists used social media in 2016 to mobilize, drive up voter registration and turnout, and foster political agency in the disability community through initiatives such as the #RevUP and #CripTheVote campaigns.

Given the dearth of research in this area, this paper focuses on the perspective of voters with disabilities and asks: (1) To what extent do digital campaigns enhance or hinder effective participation in elections for disabled citizens and what impact does this have on their stake in democratic citizenship?; (2) Which forms of digital electioneering, if any, are best suited to engage with disabled voters?; and (3) Can Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) – in particular social media platforms – be used successfully to organize persons with disabilities as a voting block in democratic elections? To address these questions, this paper analyzes evidence from eight focus groups with U.S. voters with a range of disabilities including blind and visually impaired, deaf and hard of hearing, mobility impaired individuals, and people with cognitive impairments carried out between October and December 2016. Focus group results are discussed alongside a detailed overview of the main campaigns’ efforts to engage with the disability community and key grassroots initiatives from disability organizations to mobilize persons with disabilities in the 2016 election. Results have relevance not only for digital politics scholars, but also for grassroots advocates and campaign managers more generally as they seek to reach out to and engage with this constituency.

Overall, online platforms – in particular YouTube and video-sharing platforms set up by online disability services – emerged as valued channels for making political information more accessible to persons with disabilities compared to traditional media, particularly TV, in all the focus groups. The presidential TV debates constituted an emblematic example of this trend as nearly all the participants preferred to access them online to be able to pause the video whenever needed and access a series of accommodations such as captions and sign language interpretation. However, many participants also identified the constant stream of election information from news and social media apps as a cause of growing stress and anxiety that had the potential to exacerbate extant mental health problems. Several participants devised strategies to limit their exposure to this type of news notifications, which in turn limited their ability to be fully briefed about and engaged with the campaigns in the period leading up to the election and the transition period that followed. Finally, except for a limited number of participants who were very involved with disability advocacy efforts, most expressed low levels of awareness and little or no interest in engaging with online grassroots initiatives to mobilize voters with disabilities. In addition to persisting Web access and accessibility problems, this negative trend reflected a more general lack of enthusiasm for either of the two main presidential candidates. While this suggested that candidates may matter more than policy proposals when it comes to energizing disabled voters in elections, it remains to be seen whether the emergence of key government initiatives in the new administration such as a possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid reform may boost a surge in online disability advocacy.