As Candidates Push to Get Out the Vote, Inaccessibility Remains a Barrier

By Megan Brooks
March 3, 2020

As we gear up for the 2020 election, voters across the country are preparing to exercise their right to vote. Despite protections in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), polling locations across the country remain inaccessible for people with disabilities. One in five people eligible to vote has a disability, “[o]ne-third of voters who have a disability report difficulty voting,” and “[o]nly 40 percent of polling places fully accommodate people with disabilities.”

The Department of Justice Disability Rights Section provides information on several federal laws protect the voting rights of people with disabilities; notably, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Help America Vote Act (HAVA). “Title II of the ADA requires state and local governments (“public entities”) to ensure that people with disabilities have a full and equal opportunity to vote.  The ADA’s provisions apply to all aspects of voting, including voter registration, site selection, and the casting of ballots, whether on Election Day or during an early voting process.” Additionally, “[t]o ensure that voters with disabilities can fully participate in the election process, officials must provide appropriate auxiliary aids and services at each stage of the process, from registering to vote to casting a ballot.”

HAVA “requires jurisdictions responsible for conducting federal elections to provide at least one accessible voting system for persons with disabilities at each polling place in federal elections.” During federal elections, HAVA requires the voting system, including voting machines, is accessible at each polling location to voters who are blind or visually impaired.  The accessibility must provide the same access and participation as provided to other voters.

As part of its voting protections, HAVA charges protection and advocacy agencies (P&A) for people with disabilities to ensure full participation in the voting process. Disability Rights DC at University Legal Services (DRDC) is the P&A for the District of Columbia. In 2018, DRDC conducted surveys of polling locations in DC and found that “45% of the surveyed precincts (55 precincts) in the June 2018 primary election were operationally inaccessible, structurally inaccessible, or both.” Elements that make a location structurally inaccessible are “stairs, non-ADA compliant ramps, broken elevators, and/or narrow doorways,” that could not be fixed by poll staff. Elements that cause operational inaccessibility are those that staff “could have remedied” and includes “obstructions in the path to the accessible entrance that were not removed, incorrect or missing signage, broken doorbells, and/or no available assistive equipment.” When such a large number of precincts face these issues, it is clear that voting is often not accessible to all citizens.

DC is not alone in these accessibility problems with voting. During the Iowa caucuses, Iowa’s P&A reported that some people with disabilities were prevented from caucusing due to accessibility barriers, stating promises from Iowa’s democratic party “were not met. That is not OK. … That is not how a well-run caucus should happen.” As state parties talk about making access to voting easier, it is important to address accessibility issues that impact people’s ability to participate in the voting process.

Polling places across the country have been closed or consolidated. The National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) states these closures are “blamed on the ADA” and the location’s lack of accessibility under the law. NDRN finds that “[j]urisdictions and election officials claim that because of the costs associated with making their polling places ADA compliant, they are better off relocating the polling places, or worse, closing them altogether.” The ADA mandates that participation in government services, including voting, is not denied to people with disabilities. The reduction of polling places may cause its own accessibility barriers by causing folks to travel farther in their jurisdictions to vote in a location serving many more people. The potential for increased travel distance, crowds, and wait times presents its own accessibility concerns. The solution to inaccessible polling places is not their closure but rather, at least temporarily, remediation.

Improvements to voting must be made to ensure equal access to the polls. In January 2020 Senators Casey and Klobuchar introduced the Accessible Voting Act (AVA) to increase voting accessibility, especially for the aging population and for people with disabilities. NDRN expressed support for the bill. NDRN’s Executive Director, Curt Decker, states “the AVA is a necessary piece of legislation that will further ensure voters with disabilities can fully and equally participate in our elections.” AVA’s Election Assistance Commission Office of Accessibility may be a useful tool to implement accessibility measures in ways other legislation has failed to follow through. While there has been progress in making voting more accessible in some states, we must make much more progress.

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