MANIFESTING SINCE FEBRUARY 27 AT 1:38 P.M.
Bettendorf, Ia.– Sylvia and Glen Bellows, married for 40 years, recently moved to Davenport, Ia. from Bloomington , Ill. They were excited because this would be their first caucus.
Both use wheelchairs because of polio, but were determined to be a part of the electoral process.
“If you don’t go participate, then you have no right to complain,” said Sylvia Bellows, 61.
A record number of Democrats and Republicans participated in the Jan. 3 caucuses , but those numbers could have been higher if people with disabilities better knew about assistance available to them.
It was uncertain how many persons with disabilities were among the 12, 541 Scott County Democrats and 5,603 Republicans who caucused. Or how many disabled people couldn’t make it to the two Scott County caucuses last week, given the cold temperatures and snow-covered roads and sidewalks.
A few had to make their own arrangements to show their support for their candidates.
Mike Hoenig, 44, a program manager for the Center of Disabilities and Development at University of Iowa , came out to caucus for U.S. Sen. John McCain , R-Arizona, because he had met volunteers who offered to assist with transportation to his precinct in Scott County, Iowa.
“I made a lot of the phone calls,” said Hoenig, who has been blind since birth. “I first called the [Republican] party and had to call them three times before I got a response.”
Bryan Sievers, Scott County Republican chair, said Hoenig did contact the Scott County phone line twice and then Sievers, who returned his call.
Sievers, said anyone who called and wanted to caucus Jan. 3, the party would have coordinated with a person’s candidate’s organization or with a party volunteer.
He received two phone calls for transportation to the caucuses. Sievers said Hoenig did let him know he found his own transportation.
At the caucus, there was not a volunteer on hand for Hoenig. Hoenig said he was fortunate to be sitting next to a neighbor who wrote-in his candidate’s name.
Republican caucuses conduct secret write-in ballots. Sight-impaired ballots are not available.
“That didn’t guarantee complete privacy, but everyone in the room was speaking for who they were supporting anyway,” said Hoenig. “I figured it didn’t really matter.”
“There are certainly some areas where we can improve, to help those with disabilities caucus….we were willing to make the effort to help,” said Sievers.
Sylvia Bellows said if they had driven to their precinct in Bettendorf, it would have been a problem because of a lack of visible handicap parking.
Glen Bellows, 71, researched Gov. Mitt Romney’s web site to locate his precinct. He made phone calls to ensure the precinct site was accessible.
Iowa state law does not require all precincts to be handicap accessible.
Sylvia Bellows said the couple had difficulties lowering a mechanical ramp in their van because of the snow by the sidewalk “had built up so high.”
Glen Bellows said a neighbor called him the day of the caucus concerned about the distance her husband would have to walk to the building. He encouraged her to go, telling her “we’ll figure out something for you.”
“You had to be determined to go, if you were elderly or handicapped,” said Sylvia.
Scott County-the third most populous in state– has 13.4 percent defined as disabled, according to a 2006 U.S. Census . There is no data for how many are registered to vote.
David Redlawsk, associate professor of political science at University of Iowa and former Democratic chair said the Iowan Democratic Party requires the 1,781 caucus sites be accessible.
“Does that make it easier? Sure, it makes it a little bit easier,” said Redlawsk. “Is it still hard for disabled people to get out and caucus? Of course it is.”
Susan Frembgen, Scott County Democratic chair, said she did not receive any calls from persons with disabilities.
“We would, of course, extend every bit of assistance that we can,” said Frembgen.
She said “[a] good number of elderly did turn out.”
Frembgen said snow removal and ensuring school grounds were clear were the responsibility of the school district.
Colleen Lake, manager of operations for Bettendorf Community Schools , said custodians were out salting and clearing school grounds all day. She said school custodians were at the schools during the caucuses.
Marty Lucas, superintendent for Bettendorf Community Schools, said precinct captains did contact school principals to check a schools’ accessibility.
“If you were up for the challenges, people would make [a] way to get you into that door,” said Frembgen. “Once you were to the entrance of the building, you could have been in and accommodated.”
ID Action , a state-wide initiative sponsored by the Iowa Governor’s Developmental Disabilities Council, held three caucus training seminars in 2007 in Iowa to familiarize people with disabilities about caucusing.
“People with disabilities in this country have been historically unrepresented in the electoral process,” said Rik Shannon, manager of ID Action Project.
In a 2001 focus group, they discovered “the number one barrier people had to participating in elections was an absence of information and confidence.”
The Kiwanis Aktion Club and the Community Support Advocates received a grant from ID Action, training ten persons with disabilities how to caucus.
The group of ten trained 500 people in central Iowa about the caucus process and registered 180 persons with disabilities to vote, said Cheyenna Irwin, an employment, education and recreation specialist with Community Support Advocates.
“These were people with disabilities taking that training…I like to think that we built some leadership capacities for them,” said Shannon.
As the caucus ended, most people agreed weather was a large factor in determining a person’s participation level.
Hoenig feels there is a need for an on-going discussion of how to involve persons with disabilities who want to be apart of the process.
“I think one of the good things …about the caucus was that…I found people at the caucus very willing to assist…I think it was good grass-roots activity,” said Hoenig.