It’s time to leverage the disability vote!

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Bruce Darling

In all, about $6 billion was spent on the election. And, on the face of it, we ended up where we started. We have the same President, and the same parties control the House and Senate.

But not everything is the same. Although we may have returned most of the same people to Washington, including the President, the most interesting thing for me was how the President got re-elected.

Based on a number of different measures, including the fact that the President lost ground with white voters who had voted for him in 2008, many in the Republican Party expected him to lose. The Obama campaign also realized that they had lost ground with those voters, but instead of focusing on trying to recapture them, the President’s campaign decided to add voters to their coalition.

Rallied by an interest in more social issues, the President’s base of support came out to the polls. Young voters, women and minorities all approached or exceeded their support of Mr. Obama four years ago. Although they are not included in exit polls, it’s also understood that the LGBT vote was a key factor in President Obama’s victory.

The Obama campaign’s successful strategy at leveraging these voters has significant implications for the disability community. I have listened for years as our community has lamented the lack of our political strength. I have repeatedly heard how people with disabilities are not counted in political polls. Given the abysmal employment numbers, our community has anguished over our inability to generate significant campaign contributions. And we have noted that access issues at the polls have artificially limited our ability to turn out voters.

But it is clear that other oppressed groups in the newly-dubbed “Obama electorate” have similar concerns. The LGBT community is not included in the political polls. Young people have limited funds for campaign contributions, and while other minority groups can get into the polling place, they increasingly face new barriers to voting. Although the disability community hasn’t been seen as a political force, now we have a clear opportunity to become one. During the next few years, the Democrats will need to consider how the move their strategy to the next level, and they could do that by leveraging the disability vote.

The Democrats aren’t the only ones looking at these issues. Billions of dollars in attack ads and a solid performance among white voters couldn’t secure the White House or a Senate majority for the Republicans. It’s clear that changes in demographics require them to bring additional voters into their coalition. While they have immediately recognized the potential for doing that with the Hispanic vote, the Republicans could do this by leveraging the disability vote as well.

While the Republican Party decides if it wants to broaden its base with a more inclusive message, there is a clear opportunity for the Democrats. Even so, big tent coalitions aren’t simple. Groups in the tent – and those you want to bring in – don’t always agree. For example, when President Obama announced his support for same sex marriage, there were concerns that issue would drive African Americans away from supporting President Obama. Instead, many in the African American community followed the President’s lead and reconsidered their personal views in light of his support of the issue. He demonstrated that – even though it may be difficult – strong and effective leadership can resolve such conflicts and bring groups together.

If the Democrats want to more effectively engage the disability community as part of the “Obama electorate”, the President will need to demonstrate the same leadership in addressing conflicts between the unions and the disability community. To be clear, these are not disagreements between workers and the disability community, but stem from positions taken by the unions themselves.

While the disability community has advocated ending the institutional bias in Medicaid so that people with disabilities could live independently, some unions have undercut these efforts. With support from the unions, even some of the staunchest liberals in the Party have taken positions which favor institutionalization and undercut the disability community’s efforts, such as legislation Barney Frank has introduced that would undercut our community’s ability to enforce Olmstead.

Although the decisions about how they leverage voters in 2016 will play out over the next few years, the parties can start engaging the disability community right now.

Democrats can start by keeping their promises to the disability community. During the campaign, Colorado ADAPTers secured two important promises from the Obama administration. First, the President – himself – promised to work with the disability community to resolve our concerns with the proposed changes to the Department of Labor’s companionship exemption. Second, in the final days of the campaign, Vice President Biden agreed to champion community living in the second term.

For the Republicans, if they intend to engage the disability community, their position on Medicaid needs to change. They need to acknowledge that 88% of Medicaid funding supports vital healthcare and long term services and supports for people with disabilities, the elderly and children. Unfortunately, so far, their rhetoric on the fiscal cliff has changed very little in the days since the election. They are still intent on making significant cuts to entitlements, including Medicaid which will have a devastating impact on people with disabilities, while they refuse to raise the tax rate on the most wealthy – people with millions and even billions of dollars.

In addressing the fiscal cliff, instead of simply cutting Medicaid (which has already dealt with significant cuts at the state level) both parties could embrace the disability community’s proposals for REAL Medicaid reform, including changes in policy promoting the use of community-based services, expanding the use of consumer directed services, organizing services based on functional need, and de-medicalizing these services.

Looking past the fiscal cliff, over the next few years, both parties can demonstrate their interest in leveraging our votes for the next election by working with the disability community to enact real policy changes that will improve our lives, including the elimination of the institutional bias and rules that allow people with disabilities to be paid less than minimum wage. They can work with us to address the civil and human rights violations stemming from forced treatment and the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia.

The potential exists now – more than ever – for the disability community to become a true political force, but it’s up to us to make that happen. Voting may be done, but our work is just beginning.