“Sorry, but you’re not allowed to vote.” Imagine if this is what you were told when you arrived at your polling place. Would you feel upset? Frustrated? Helpless? Maybe even scared? For plenty of people with disabilities, this isn’t an imagining, this is reality.
Following the 2016 national election, there were many reports from voters with disabilities that they were unable to vote. In some instances, the “you can’t vote” message was verbal, and poll workers actually turned away people in wheelchairs, people who have trouble speaking, and people who are deaf or blind. And in other instances, the message was nonverbal: people with disabilities were led to stairs they couldn’t climb or were pointed in the direction of accessible voting machines that weren’t powered on.
Now, as many jurisdictions return to paper ballots to address cybersecurity issues, there is growing concern that obstacles to voting will only get worse. Many voters with disabilities need assistance to mark paper ballots, so they need special voting machines equipped with earphones and other modifications. But poll workers often feel uncomfortable operating these machine-based systems and have discouraged their use, leaving voters with disabilities… without a vote.
But a return to paper ballots is certainly not the only catalyst for increased attention on polling place accessibility. According to an October 2017 study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), nearly two-thirds of the 137 polling places surveyed on Election Day 2016 had at least one impediment to people with disabilities. Among the violations:
- The accessible voting machine wasn’t set up and powered on
- The earphones weren’t functioning
- The voting system wasn’t wheelchair-accessible
- The voting system didn’t provide the same privacy as standard voting stations
This lack of accessibility is not without its consequences. According to a Rutgers University survey, the lack of access to proper voting machines, among several other issues, has led to a decline in voter participation among people with disabilities — from 57.3 percent in 2008 to 56.8 percent in 2012 and 55.9 percent in 2016. The Rutgers study also cites that many polling places have physical barriers that are difficult for people with disabilities to overcome, such as steep ramps and poor path surfaces.
Other factors contributing to the problem include a lack of training for poll workers, limited access to registration materials, and insufficient resources for election officials — all of which were laid out in a September 2016 white paper from the Ruderman Family Foundation.
Colorado Sets the Bar
In Colorado, 69 percent of registered voters with disabilities voted in 2016. This figure was one of the highest rates in the country, and it’s the result of several advocates’ and state officials’ efforts to make voting accessible.
Specifically, following the passage of the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA), Disability Law Colorado went to every county in the state to meet with the clerks. During these meetings, they identified barriers to polling place accessibility and created a plan to use state funding to help polling places in need of improvement meet federal HAVA and Americans with Disabilities Act standards.
To Colorado’s credit, these efforts were not a “one off.” Now, following every election, the secretary of state releases a county-by-county audit on whether localities are meeting accessibility standards for polling places.
You Can Follow Suit
In a perfect world, every state would take the same level of interest in polling place accessibility that Colorado did, and HAVA funding would make it easy to rectify any barriers. Unfortunately, however, it is a far from perfect world. HAVA funding is no longer available, and many counties’ coffers are woefully empty when it comes to making polling place improvements.
This is where Inclusion Solutions can help. Inclusion Solutions has worked with multiple counties and municipalities nationwide that have not only been required to complete election site surveys, but also are under scrutiny from either local disability advocates or the United States Department of Justice regarding polling place accessibility. Inclusion Solutions’ expertise is unmatched at reviewing polling places for ADA compliance and identifying cost-effective, pragmatic solutions for accessibility for voters with a variety of physical or cognitive disabilities. Even better, site surveys include an inventory of your current elections equipment and supplies, so recommendations can be made on how best to optimize the equipment you do have and thereby minimize the number of products that need to be purchased.
To learn more about how Inclusion Solutions can help, contact Hollister Bundy at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 847-869-2500. You can also read some of the experts’ tips for guaranteeing an accessible election here.