Why Are Polling Places Still Inaccessible?

In the United States, the right to vote is supposed to be guaranteed to citizens over the age of 18. Of course, the reality is somewhat different. Many states have felon disenfranchisement, which legally bars felons from voting, while others use a variety of tactics to limit voting rights, such as mandating voter ID, having complex voter registration laws, allowing challenges at the polls, and more. All of these measures directly target low-income people, particularly people of colour, and this does not go unnoticed by voting rights advocates fighting hard to protect the right to equally and fairly access the polls.

There’s another group of marginalised people who need some help at the polls too, though, and that’s the disability community, which is often physically barred from participation on election day. Though the ADA is over 20 years old, polling places continue to remain physically accessible, and individual states are refusing to address the issue. This effectively bars disabled people using mobility devices or in need of voting tools like braille ballots from voting, even if they are registered and have the legal right to participate in the election.

In 2012, 20% of disabled voters said they had problems at polling places. Disability discrimination is a particularly large problem for wheelchair, walker, and cane users, who have mobility impairments that make it difficult or impossible to climb stairs or change levels to reach a polling booth. D/deaf voters also struggled with communication issues, while some blind voters were reduced, yet again, to having polling workers fill out their ballots, which is an immense compromise of privacy as well as a great risk to take; voters have to trust that poll workers accurately record their choices.

Many voters reported that they had trouble casting their ballots independently, and also encountered rude attitudes from polling place workers, who receive little to no training in working with disabled voters. Such attitudes can vary from refusing voting rights to disabled voters to making ableist comments about people coming in to cast their ballots; for people with cognitive, intellectual, and developmental disabilities, many of these comments surround their alleged ‘fitness’ to vote, as some people feel that they should be denied voting rights on the grounds that they don’t understand the election and its ramifications. And indeed, some states are limiting voting rights for disabled people living under guardianships, illustrating this attitude firsthand.

It wasn’t until 2002 that disabled people were even legally guaranteed the right to vote independently and privately, and meanwhile, 70% of polling places are inaccessible, which presents a contradiction in terms. In areas where mail voting isn’t widely practiced or people have trouble getting absentee ballots (and no one should be forced to get an absentee ballot — disabled voters have a right to choose how and when they vote just like nondisabled voters), voting may end up being a matter of hunching over a ballot on a sidewalk. In the era of electronic voting machines, a physically inaccessible polling place is also a place where a disabled voter can’t even create a makeshift polling station, because the tools needed are on the other side of an insurmountable barrier.

Why are polling places still inaccessible? The problem is multipronged, as these issues so often are. One issue is the larger problem of inaccessibility. Polling places are typically created as popup locales in public venues like churches, post offices, and some large businesses. The fact that many of these locations remain inaccessible in daily life is a testimony to how few people care about ADA requirements in the US and the need for disabled people to complete tasks of daily living on their own. Aggressively pursuing ADA compliance, thus, would solve a number of the physical accessibility issues at voting places.

Accessible voting technology is also necessary. Screenreading tools are highly advanced at this point and there’s no reason blind and low-vision users shouldn’t be able to privately and securely cast their votes with the assistance of an accessible electronic ballot or a traditional braille ballot. Meanwhile, D/deaf voters shouldn’t be facing discrimination in polling places—information should be clearly posted in order to provide it in multiple formats for voters.

And, of course, ableist attitudes among pollworkers also need to be confronted. Having worked at polling places myself, I am aware firsthand of the kinds of materials provided, and they do not usually include information about disabled voters and accommodations. This information should be routinely provided, along with a reminder that disabled voters deserve dignity, respect, and equal treatment. A brief discussion of why it’s important to avoid slurs and ableist comments is important, just as it’s critical to remind polling places workers that racism, sexism, and other biases are not welcome in the polling place; if workers can be reminded that electioneering is not permitted, surely they can be advised to keep other opinions to themselves.

The Department of Justice has made a pledge to improve voting for disabled people in the US, and hopefully we’ll see better numbers in the 2014 elections. By 2016, with a major federal election, one would hope that these dismal polling place numbers are radically improved. Disabled voters have been sidelined too long when it comes to participating in elections that result in key political decisions. We, too, are invested in politics and care about who comes to office and which propositions pass, and it’s time for states to be more proactive about protecting the voting rights of all citizens, not just those who fit within a narrow band of identities.