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Recent Audits Show Pattern of Inadequate Polling Access for Voters with Disabilities

October 27, 2023
Source: Democracy Docket

A series of recent audits and investigations across three states have revealed close to a thousand polling places that are non-compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or are otherwise inaccessible to voters with disabilities.

An analysis of the 2022 midterm elections by the organizations Detroit Disability Power (DDP) and the Carter Center revealed an overwhelming number of inaccessible polling locations in Detroit, Michigan and 14 surrounding suburbs. Of the audited cities, a whopping 84% of voting locations were plagued with barriers or impediments to voting for those with disabilities. 

The issues included impassable sidewalks, inaccessible and unclear building entrances and voting booths too high for those in wheelchairs. Fourteen of the 15 observed cities also had polling locations that lacked fully accessible voting booths. The audit additionally found numerous polling sites that only featured stairs and lacked unblocked ramps or lacked ramps altogether. DDP executive director Dessa Cosma said most of the solutions to these issues don’t even cost money, they simply require “some intentionality and some forethought.”

While it is concerning that only 16% of Detroit and surrounding cities’ voting locations are fully accessible, voters in some regions are plagued by even worse conditions. An analysis by the Houston Chronicle found that of 701 voting locations in Harris County, Texas — the third most populous county in the nation — just two were fully compliant with the ADA. Three hundred of the 701 evaluated sites were not only noncompliant, but also couldn’t be made fully accessible through temporary modifications to the sites.

Early voting locations in Harris County fare no better. Of the 68 early voting sites, not even one is fully compliant, and more than one-third cannot be made compliant through temporary changes. 

Hinds County, Mississippi, home to the state capital of Jackson, is failing to ensure accessible polling locations even after being held in contempt of court this August for failing to bring the county courthouse into ADA compliance and previously entering into a consent decree over polling place accessibility. According to an assessment from Disability Rights Mississippi (DRM) at least 10 polling places in the county have significant accessibility issues.

Issues with the polling places in Hinds County include a lack of accessible parking, incomplete voting machine equipment designed for those with disabilities, unclear signage and missing curb cuts to make wheelchair movement easier. 

Those associated with DRM have said they hope at least some of the issues are fixed in time for upcoming elections, and the group previously sent a letter detailing their findings to the county elections commission and board of supervisors.

Multiple lawsuits challenging inaccessible voting policies are currently being litigated in at least five different states. 

In Alabama, four voters who are blind or have a print disability and the National Federation of the Blind of Alabama are challenging the state’s absentee voting system in a lawsuit filed earlier this month. They claim the system is inaccessible for those who are blind or have print disabilities since the state does not allow voters to vote on accessible electronic ballots, yet permits citizens living overseas and in the military to use the practice.

A case in Michigan, filed by DDP and other groups, challenges a state law that makes it a misdemeanor to “hire a motor vehicle” to transport voters to the polls unless they are “physically unable to walk,” which is especially burdensome to voters with disabilities. One of the plaintiffs in the case is Detroit Disability Power.

To the south in Missouri, a few groups and voters allege that certain state laws — that prohibit volunteers who are not immediate family members or election judges from assisting more than one voter with a physical disability or who cannot read or write completing their ballots —violate the Voting Rights Act (VRA). This case is currently paused pending a decision in a similar lawsuit in Arkansas.

Lastly, a Mississippi disability rights group and others brought a lawsuit against the state over its recently passed law, which stipulates that only election officials, postal workers, family members, household members or caregivers can assist voters with disabilities in returning their completed mail-in ballots. The plaintiffs specifically claim that the new law “risks disenfranchising entirely blind, disabled, or low-literacy voters” in violation of Section 208 of the [Voting Rights Act or] VRA, a key tool to protect voters who need assistance at the polls. 

After a judge temporarily blocked the law, the Mississippi attorney general and secretary of state appealed the decision to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals where we await a decision.

Read more about Section 208 of the VRA here. 

News source: democracydocket.com/news-alerts/recent-audits-show-pattern-of-inadequate-polling-access-for-voters-with-disabilities

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