Staff post:
Cas Shearin
Media Strategist / Senior Writer

In conversation with Vice President Kamala Harris

Voting is a “personal imperative” for Dr. Ricky Scott, a Raleigh resident whose fight for voting rights recently landed him a seat at the table with Vice President Kamala Harris to discuss the barriers disabled voters face.  

 “She was genuinely engaged,” Dr. Scott said of the vice president. “I was quite impressed with her desire to have this frank and honest discussion about voting rights access for persons with disabilities across the country, especially in light of measures across the country to restrict access to the ballot.” 

As state legislatures create and pass new voting measures, Vice President Harris and the Biden Administration are surveying the impacts of these laws. Dr. Scott, who is blind, was one of seven people with disabilities Vice President Harris invited for a private conversation in her ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Building in Washington, DC. Other disabled participants were from Michigan, California, Florida, Indiana, New Jersey and Alabama. 

In her public remarks just before the closed meeting, the vice president said voting rights for disabled people “is one of our highest priorities. In that context,” she said, “I have asked these leaders to join me to provide us with insight, with advice, and with perspective on not only how these emerging laws in various states will impact our friends and our neighbors and family members with disabilities, but also, I am fully aware that even before these laws started to most recently emerge, we still weren’t doing a good job.” 

State victory for disabled voters has national implications

Dr. Scott’s invitation to the table stemmed from his action as one of a coalition of seven individuals and organizations who successfully sued the state to enforce their right to an accessible absentee ballot. The coalition, which included Disability Rights NC, Disability Rights Advocates, the NC Council of the Blind, and the Governor Morehead Alumni Associationprevailed in their lawsuitjust weeks before the 2020 general election. A federal judge later ruled that in all future elections NC elections officials must give disabled voters access to the accessible online voting system used by military and overseas voters.

Dr. Scott talked about that important victory with Vice President Harris. He also wanted to provide her the full context of his voting history in NC, from having “absolutely no access” unless someone assisted him in the voting booth, denying him privacy and independence; to curbside voting, which also requires personal assistance; to using a voting machine that has an option to read ballots out loud and that often was not functioning, or elections staff were not aware of the machines.  

“I’ve had the full range of experiences in North Carolina, but under no circumstances when it was challenging did I allow it to keep me from exercising my right to the franchise,” he said. “Understanding and knowing the history of the vote in this country from its inception to where it is today, I see it as a personal imperative to engage in that civic responsibility to vote.” 

The power of collective action

That’s why Dr. Scott joined a steering committee of the Governor Morehead Alumni Association following the 2016 election that sought to address voting accessibility across NC. The group researched ways states across the country used electronic voting to provide broad accessibility to voters. Using that research, the group then reached out to partners to litigate the issue in NC. Dr. Scott said that collective effort was deeply rewarding. 

“It’s important for people to know that with persistence one can bring about positive change through our legal system,” he said. “It can be a tedious process at times, it can be a frustrating process at times, but at the end of the day we have a system that is fundamentally a good system. But any system designed by human beings has flaws in it and requires continued work to improve upon it, make it much more inclusive. People should know we can always bring about change with collective action and coordinated efforts. Those of us with disabilities, we may have been considered a marginalized part of the population, but when we collectively act, we can bring about action not only for us, but for our state and our nation.” 

The meeting with the vice president lasted an hour, and Dr. Scott said the group easily could have talked for two hours. “The vice president of this administration appeared to be fully committed to ensuring that persons with disabilities have full access to the vote in the country. She wanted to learn and gain these experiences to be able to amplify that story across the country when this issue is brought forth. Because in the final analysis it is impacting on the broader issue of voting access for all people in this country.”  

In her comments, the vice president took note of the diversity of disability reflected by her guests and stressed the importance of representation. 

“You represent the experience, the life, and the voice so many Americans whose voices and whose perspective must be represented in all of these rooms at all of these tables,” she said. “Because if we are truly a democracy, it means that we have a representative government that reflects the experience and the life of all of the people in our country. And I think we have a lot more work to do in this regard as it relates to our fellow Americans with disabilities.” 

Moving in the right direction

Dr. Scott agrees. He said he and others are working hard now to ensure all local boards of elections are aware of this change and that all of NC’s elections websites reflect the availability of online voting for future elections.   

“It was a great experience to be able to have voted electronically in the last election, but we are still working out all the details of that. In fact, I just went over a practice ballot.  It is steadily moving in the right direction,” he said.