Matt McReynolds

Disenfranchising the Disabled—Democracy Takes a Hit in California

As an attorney with the Pacific Justice Institute, I have been part of the legal team seeking to assure the fair validation of signatures for the referendum on AB 1266, the “co-ed bathroom bill.” I was also heavily involved in the effort to defeat this outlandish bill in the Legislature.

So imagine my surprise and outrage when I learned recently that one of the signatures tossed out by elections officials reviewing our petitions … was my own. You read that correctly—a petition from one of the key backers of the referendum, more familiar than most with the rules, was not good enough to satisfy elections workers here in Sacramento County. So what did I do wrong? The explanation was that my signature didn’t look exactly like it had on my registration card. And you know what? They’re probably right; my signature has undoubtedly changed over the last few years as I have become totally blind and no longer able to see what I’ve written. That’s a long story that I’ll save for another day. But my disability shouldn’t prevent me from participating in such a core function of democracy as signing a referendum petition.

What’s really scary is that I only found out I had been disenfranchised because I am very involved in the massive effort by the Privacy for All Students coalition to examine the signatures that were invalidated. Otherwise, I would never have even known that officials were quietly taking away my rights. Consider for a moment that roughly 130,000 signatures of the 620,000 submitted by PFAs have been thrown out. We’ve been highly skeptical from the beginning that so many signatures were really invalid. Now our worst fears are being confirmed. We are finding subjective standards that vary from county to county. A signature that might be validated in one county might not be validated in the next county.

How many other disabled people like myself have been disenfranchised without even knowing it? How many senior citizens whose signatures have changed since they registered, perhaps decades ago? We don’t yet know, but we’re getting to the bottom of it. With such a thin margin between victory and defeat—less than 20,000 out of the 620,000 total signatures submitted—we are determined to make every valid signature count.

Maybe you don’t care about this particular referendum or shy away from hot-button social issues. But you don’t have to be a flaming conservative to care about the fundamental principle that grassroots democracy like referendum efforts should not be thwarted by subjective, unknowable criteria imposed at the whims of elections officials. That’s something we should all be able to agree on—and something that is threatened by the present process.

Matt McReynolds is an attorney with the Pacific Justice Institute.