Inaccessibility at the polls

Unsurprisingly, I have been doing rather a lot of coverage on the elections this year, with a particular focus on the disability vote, from a number of different angles. I’ve looked at disability as a voting block, issues that matter to many disabled people this year, and the way voter ID laws interact with the disability community. A lot of common themes have run through the conversations I’ve had with disability rights activists, ACLU attorneys working on disability rights, researchers, and many more people with a vested interest in the matter, but one keeps appearing over and over again: Polling place accessibility.

Less than 30 percent of polling places in the United States were  ‘fully accessible’ during the last election, which is an unacceptable violation of voting rights. If you cannot get into the polls, you cannot vote, or you may find your ability to vote freely and fairly compromised. I’ve heard stories about people being forced to fill out ballots on the hoods of their cars, people having ballots read to them and marked by poll workers, people carried into the polls, people encountering equipment that polling place workers haven’t set up and don’t know how to use, people being unable to access bathrooms and other facilities.

There are a lot of reasons why polling places are inaccessible. Many are in churches and other buildings that should technically qualify as accommodations, but they’re pre-ADA and haven’t had renovations extensive enough to trigger ADA review. Or they’re pre-ADA and don’t care. Or they’re post-ADA and don’t care. There’s a lot of not caring when it comes to disability access — and thus buildings have stairs and no ramps, narrow doorways, bathrooms that are too small. No one bothers to put in a temporary ramp, or to make sure bathrooms are clear so people can turn around comfortably while using a wheelchair. Or to put out chairs so that people with neurological disabilities and fatigue can sit down while they wait — especially since poll lines can be extremely long in some states.

There’s another factor, too: The polling place equipment itself. While accessible equipment is supposed to be available in all polling places, that’s not always the case, and it’s not always properly installed by poll workers, who aren’t trained in how to put it together and set it up. Even if they can set it up, they don’t always know how to use it. Sometimes it’s blocked off so voters can’t get to it. Sometimes it’s malfunctioning and no one addresses the problem by contacting local government authorities to get replacement equipment.

Thus, disabled people are left in a situation where they cannot vote privately. They may be forced to vote openly in the polling place because the polling stations are too high to reach, or, even more humiliatingly, sometimes poll workers have to mark their ballots for them. This of course deprives people of the fundamental right to vote privately and without coercion or influence, but it also raises the risk that a poll worker lacking integrity could decide to falsify someone’s vote, and she might not have any way of knowing — a blind or low vision person cannot check a ballot to confirm that it was marked correctly.

This is disablism. There are a lot of issues facing marginalised groups at the polls — like lack of access to translation, an issue I discussed last week — and this is a huge one for a substantial group of people. Not all disabled people need polling place accommodations, but those who do rely on them to vote. The response to this is sometimes to say that people should just vote absentee, but this is not an option. Everyone who wants to vote in person should be able to do so, free and clear. Period. It doesn’t matter whether they’re disabled or not. This is pretty basic. Some people enjoy the sensory and community experience of voting and they shouldn’t be deprived of that simply because a church doesn’t care about disabled parishoners, or because a business hasn’t bothered to comply with the ADA, or because a polling place is in a private home and it’s not accessible, which happens in some rural communities where the electorate is too small — and there’s no business or other public space that’s large enough — to hold the election anywhere else.

Voting rights should never be infringed, and all over the United States, they’re being restricted right now. We saw it in primary after primary, and we’ll see it in the general as well. Many people lack the knowledge, ability, and skills to fight for their rights on election day and to follow up if they’re disenfranchised. That means that their votes aren’t counting, which could really matter in tight elections in addition to being fundamentally unfair. Is someone going to win this election through a mix of fraud and default by way of pushing marginalised people out of the polls to ensure that the vote swings conservative, which it likely will in the face of laws that tend to target minorities?

In conversations about voting rights this year, disability needs to play a role. Right now, it’s not, and this is a really big problem. 20 percent of the US population is disabled, and while not all of those people are affected by accessibility issues at the polls, enough are that this needs to be addressed before the general, when it will be too late for many voters to get what’s rightfully theirs: A chance to speak in the polling booth.

Image: Polling Place Vote Here, Scott Beale, Flickr