Polling booths are often set in upstairs meeting halls, church basements, and other non-accessible locations. Research by the attorney general for the State of New York discovered that most counties within that state alone had only 10 percent of polling locations fully compliant with federal and state laws. The Federal Election Commission reported that there are more than 20,000 inaccessible polling places throughout the United States.
Activists argue that inaccessible voting locations violate the Americans with Disability Act and interfere with the fundamental right to vote. There are more than 33 million Americans with disabilities who are eligible to vote, and simply cannot, due to polling locations. Clearly, changes need to be made to accommodate the disabled community during the voting process.
People with disabilities need their voice heard as much as able-bodied citizens. The primary election is underway and the Presidential election is scheduled for November 8, 2016, which is right around the corner. The disabled community has many registered voters. However, a large quantity of the community stays home on election day due to inaccessible voting locations. Advocates for the disabled community are concerned polling locations aren’t prepared to accommodate wheelchair users come voting day.
Common polling location issues include lack of parking, doorways that are too small and the lack of ramps and elevators. The Help America Vote Act was passed by the United States Congress to make reforms to the nation’s voting process. It was set in place to address voter access and improvements to the voting systems. The Help America Vote Act also mentions that states can receive federal funds to improve their polling centers and provide accessibility to all citizens, including the disabled community.
The blame for inaccessible voting locations is being placed on the lack of money. According to the United States Election Assistance Commission, from 2003 to 2010, congress gave states $3.25 billion to improve the voting process. Advocates highlight the fact that the money was to be used for the “voting process.” It seems the money was used towards purchasing fully accessible voting equipment, which is a positive action towards accessibility for disabled voters. However, the money was not spent on making polling locations accessible. This means the accessible equipment is inside the polling locations, but the disabled community is unable to access the building. Advocates argue the money should have been spent first on making accessibility improvements to the buildings and then focusing on the voting equipment.
Polling locations are not able to report 100% accessibility across the country. Some advocates find this unbelievable since the Americans with Disability Act demands that all federal voting locations adhere to the regulations. How are they getting away with it? According to the executive director of the National Association of Election Officials, Doug Lewis, the United States is not fully compliant with the ADA. But, polling center accessibility has improved over the years. Lewis explains, there is a money issue at the moment that is slowing progress to voting location improvements.
Portable accessible ramp manufacturers are receiving orders from polling stations throughout the country. While the fix might be temporary at least the effort is being made to accommodate the disabled community. However, permanent solutions should be made as quickly as possible.
Advocates argue that inaccessible voting locations should adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act or move the voting location to a wheelchair accessible building within the community. Voting officials have a checklist to adhere to when choosing a new site for polling locations. They also have the capability to work with building owners to create permanent accessibility improvements to the property.
Accessible Voting Location Checklist
- Parking – Disabled parking spaces should be located as close to the entrance of the building as possible. They need enough room to accommodate easy exit and entrance into the car or van. A clear path to the entrance void of obstacles and debris needs to be available as well. In addition to the disabled parking spaces, there also needs to be an accessible ramp connected from the parking lot to the entrance of the building with enough room for disabled passengers to get dropped off at the entrance area.
- Doorways – The building must provide at least one disabled entrance way that is obvious to the disabled community. If the entrance is not in the front of the building, signing that guides people to the direction of the entrance way are recommended. The door width has to be capable of accommodating wheelchairs, walkers, crutches, mobility scooters and canes.
- Elevators – If the polling location is above the first floor, an elevator needs to be available. The elevator has to be in working order and have a clear path to its location. While most elevators are placed in the lobby area of buildings, there are situations when it is located in the corner or other location. Proper signing guiding people towards the elevator should be available in plain sight.
- Hallways – All hallways in the building where the polling station is located should be wheelchair accessible. The hallways need to be wide enough to accommodate a large wheelchair and have extra room for maneuverability.
The 2016 Presidential election is a few months away and many voters within the disabled community are ready to have their voices heard. There is no doubt that the disabled community is going to come up against obstacles at the voting facilities. If you are a wheelchair user and experience accessibility issues, take notes and contact your local state officials regarding polling location regulations set in place by the Americans with Disability Act.