Even as the 2020 election season gets into full swing, polling place accessibility remains a pervasive problem for people with disabilities seeking to exercise their right to vote. Even more alarming, according to a new investigative report some county election officials are using their failure to make their polling locations accessible as a pretext for closing them, rather than working with the disability rights community to make them accommodating.
This finding is described in the report “Blocking the Ballot Box: Ending Misuse of the ADA to Close Polling Places,” issued by the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN).
“The idea that making polling places accessible is too expensive and forces closures is a lie,” Curt Decker, NDRN executive director, said in a news release. “The solution to inaccessible polling places is not to close them…it is to make them accessible. It’s clear to us from this investigation that these counties are not interested in improving accessibility. They are simply looking for excuses to close polling places and making it harder for people to vote.”
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that all places of public accommodation, such as polling places, be disability accessible. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 bolstered this mandate by requiring that all polling locations provide a voting system accessible to people with disabilities, and that the system must provide the opportunity for people with disabilities to vote privately and independently.
Nonetheless, a third of voters with disabilities reported obstacles during the 2012 elections. Likewise, a 2017 report from the Government Accountability Office found that 60 percent of surveyed polling sites imposed one or more physical obstacles, most commonly related to the location’s parking, sidewalks, entrances, hallways and the voting areas themselves.
Rather than fix the problem, however, some counties are opting to shut down their polling places altogether. Randolph County, a majority black county in Georgia, made national headlines when it made plans to close 7 of its 9 polling locations during the state’s 2018 governor’s race. Less publicized, however, was the county’s stated justification: it closed them because it couldn’t make them ADA-compliant. After a public backlash, the county kept the polling sites open.
NDRN has since found that Randolph County is far from an isolated instance. The organization uncovered examples of other counties in Georgia, as well as counties in Mississippi, Texas, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Louisiana, Ohio, and Kansas that pointed to alleged ADA compliance concerns as a basis for closing polling places.
To reverse this trend, NDRN in its report provides a range of temporary remedies for jurisdictions to make their polling places compliant between now and the 2020 election. It also provides a range of successful examples, such as that of Chicago, where activists and elected officials collaborated to improve voting accessibility.
The NDRN also calls on the Department of Justice (DOJ) to resume prior initiatives to resolve voting accessibility issues. These include Project Civic Access, which has resulted in the DOJ entering into 221 settlements with various counties and cities to improve accessibility.
“America’s polling places and electoral systems, as a whole, must be accessible to safeguard equal access to the ballot box. America’s democracy is only as strong as its ability to hear the voices of all Americans,” the report states.