Eric Peebles can do so many things.
He runs his own successful consulting business with nationwide reach. He held a university faculty job and holds seats on two statewide boards. He gives advice to health care and consumer officials across his home state of Alabama, even though he struggles to breathe when he talks because of a condition called spastic cerebral palsy.
For all the things he can do, there is one important thing he cannot, and that is to vote – at least not easily, simply and privately. Especially during a pandemic.
Since the COVID-19 virus swept the country and the globe, Peebles – whose mobility impairment and its sedentary effects make him deeply susceptible to health problems related to the coronavirus – has barely left his apartment complex in Auburn, Alabama. To limit transmission of the virus, no more than one of the five caregivers and three nurses who help him each week can be in his apartment with him at the same time. Just about his only respite is walking his dog, a chocolate Labrador who stays dutifully close to Peebles’ wheelchair on his outings.
But to vote in any election in Alabama, Peebles, 39, must make a difficult decision. He must either take the considerable health risk of casting his ballot in person, or he must vote by absentee ballot, which would require him to invite two witnesses into his home to watch him sign his ballot, in violation of virus protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Or he must arrange for a special van and driver to take him to a notary public, who can witness his signature on his absentee ballot. There is no curbside voting in Alabama.
Sunshine of public scrutiny
Peebles shares these obstacles with thousands of voters who have disabilities in Alabama and other states. The challenges are not new, but the COVID-19 pandemic has deepened them and – in a way – brought them into the light.
“Sunshine is the great disinfectant for longstanding systemic injustices,” Peebles said in a recent interview over Zoom, his background an image of the Golden Gate Bridge that he says reminds him of the wide world beyond his largely homebound life.
“These great obstacles we are seeing to voting right now for people like me just illustrate something that has been below the surface for most folks for many years,” Peebles said. “Voting can empower people with disabilities to ensure their full potential, with autonomy and independence. The restrictions on voting for the disabled are just now getting the sunshine of public scrutiny.”
Together with Peebles, the Southern Poverty Law Center is trying to bring the challenges of voters with disabilities out of the shadows. Last year, along with other organizations, the SPLC filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Peebles and several other Alabama voters who require a safe alternative to voting in person at a polling place during the COVID-19 pandemic because their health conditions put them at higher risk of severe illness and death from the virus. The SPLC also represented membership and advocacy organizations including People First of Alabama, Greater Birmingham Ministries, the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP, and Black Voters Matter Capacity Building Institute.
The suit was filed by the SPLC; the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.; American Civil Liberties Union; ACLU of Alabama; Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program; and O’Melveny & Myers LLP.
The suit won in federal district court, with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama ruling last September that both photo ID and notary witness requirements for absentee ballot applications and Alabama’s ban on curbside voting violated the constitutional rights of people with disabilities, as well as the Americans with Disabilities Act during the pandemic.
Peebles wasted no time taking advantage of the district court victory. The day after the initial ruling waiving witness requirements, he voted by absentee ballot, mailing in his vote from the safety of his home.
It was lucky for Peebles he did not wait any longer. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and Secretary of State John Merrill sought a stay of the district court’s ruling, and it was granted. Two weeks after the district court decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit stayed the district court’s order enjoining the state’s witness and photo ID requirements but left in place the district court’s ruling allowing curbside voting. The state sought a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court, and on Oct. 28, 2020, the curbside voting ruling was stayed as well by a 5-4 decision.
For the SPLC and Peebles, the Supreme Court stay was the beginning of the struggle, not the end.
“The pandemic is still with us and there are still elections going on in Alabama. And the long-term problems of accessibility will still be with us when the pandemic ends,” said Caren Short, the senior staff attorney for the SPLC who spearheaded the suit. “These burdensome requirements still exist, and whether we try to solve these problems with cooperation, or we pursue litigation, we will continue to look for ways to reduce the burdens on Alabama voters.”
There is no time to waste. With municipal and county elections coming up this year in jurisdictions across the state, SPLC staff hope to engage with the probate judges who run elections to improve the accessibility of polling places.
County government buildings where polling places are set up are old and often fail to meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards. Parking spots designated as “handicapped” are often ad hoc, leading to a curb instead of a ramp, or to grass or gravel instead of a paved passageway that can be navigated with a wheelchair or a walker. Some ramps lead, infuriatingly, to stairs. Some elevators are too small.
A vote, not a label
Officials are often unaware of accessibility issues until they are pointed out.
“I don’t want to go to a rural county with a small budget and say, ‘You need to move polling places, you need to repave the driveways,’ but there are a lot of accessibility improvements that can be made that are not that overwhelming, that probate judges can be thinking of,” said Rachel Knowles, an outreach paralegal for the SPLC. “We’re trying to come up with ways to work with them and start them thinking about what changes can be made as soon as possible, and in the long term.”
Access to the ballot is a political necessity for all citizens, including the diverse population of people who live with illnesses and disabilities that make casting a ballot under current conditions in Alabama such a challenge. For Peebles and other people with disabilities, the right to vote also represents freedom in its deepest sense.
“Voting is the one part of citizenship that is blind,” Peebles said. “When I cast my ballot, no one knows whether it’s been cast by someone Black, … Brown, disabled, gay or straight. It is the one facet of my life where I am not given a label. I am just a vote.”
Photo contributed by Eric Peebles