For Grace Gouker Littlefield, the 2021 election isn't just about the candidates. It's about who gets to vote for them. After about six years of working for tech startups on the West Coast, Gouker Littlefield moved back to her hometown of Bemidji in 2018 "to be useful to my community." She found her calling as founder and executive director of Able to Vote, (abletovote.org), a nonpartisan nonprofit working to increase voter turnout among eligible voters with disabilities by giving them the resources, support and information they need to cast their ballots. She shares more about her homecoming, big goals for her organization and why Minnesota is No. 1 in an area that should not give us a sense of pride.
Q: Returning to Bemidji after years with tech startups, including Airbnb, must have felt somewhat like reverse culture shock. What drew you back?
A: In 2016, I became much more interested in elections and civic engagement generally. I began focusing on engagement work as a volunteer and founded a nonprofit with friends and colleagues. But I was desiring a move back here to see what I could do for the disability community, which I am a part of, and the Bemidji community in general.
Q: How do you define disability community?
A: People who have identified as having a disability are part of the disability community. It's very wide and broad and diverse. If we are to change the barriers that exist, not just to voting but in other ways, we do need to work in solidarity and support each other.
Q: What are major barriers to voting? What is research telling you?
A: Usually every two or four years, a couple of big disability voting reports come out, but existing data is not very concise about individual state barriers. We do know that what is happening all over the United States, including Minnesota, is that there are many reasons people don't vote. Caregivers might not inform them that they can vote, or they are told incorrectly that they cannot vote due to their disability. Accessible transportation is obviously one of the biggest issues; to get coverage through insurance, the ride has to be for a medical need and voting is a nonmedical need. Then there are challenges with accessibility at voting booths.
Q: Such as?
A: Sometimes people can't even get in the door, or the accessible voting booths are not set up properly or are too high. Or poll workers are not trained in using accessible technologies, such as Braille ballots. It can be challenging in many ways.
Q: How many voters are we talking about?
A: In a given national election, there are 2.35 million voters who do not vote because of barriers or because they don't feel engaged. In Minnesota, we have great overall turnout — 80%. But we also have the largest gap between eligible voters with disabilities and those without in the country, at 19.5%, according to Schur & Kruse/Rutgers research. These numbers indicate a real lack in support, education, information and service to voters with disabilities, which is what we aim to bridge.
Q: Not the kind of No. 1 we'd want to boast about. What's going on in Minnesota?
A: Transportation is the No. 1 barrier for most voters with disabilities. But also, people who live in group homes, for instance, aren't necessarily going to be in the loop. They might not even be aware that there are elections that they can participate in. The lives of a lot of people with disabilities can be pretty complicated, and sometimes folks are siloed away from their community.
Q: Did voting-by-mail in 2020 due to the pandemic make a positive difference in your community?
A: Definitely, the disability vote did see a significant increase and the turnout gap did shrink in 2020. Unfortunately, what we are seeing this year is more flexible voting policies being turned back because city and state governments don't think they're necessary anymore. I feel like this reversion is based more on political arguments, so people with disabilities and other voters can't get the assistance they need or access to the ballot box generally. Everyone who is eligible should have easy access to voting.
Q: How are you working to mitigate barriers to voting?
A: This fall, we've been doing outreach to get people in the habit of voting. We want to help them make a plan, perhaps in advance of Election Day, to request an accessible or absentee form of the ballot as needed so they can feel prepared to vote, get transportation secured, review their ballot and generally be ready to vote in every election. Mailers are going out with general information about how to vote. Our number is on there, if they want to make an individualized plan. We've included the secretary of state's information, deadlines and more. We're just really hoping that if someone is thinking about voting, they know that we are here to help.
Q: What are your plans for expansion?
A: We are currently focusing on increasing voter turnout from our target demographic throughout Minnesota. But next year, we plan to expand to multiple states as part of the 2022 midterms, and nationally in 2024 for the next general election.
Q: How can we help you succeed?
A: We always welcome volunteers. But the best way to help is to go vote yourselves. Early voting has begun and the election is Nov. 2. Please go vote.