Government Study Finds Majority of U.S. Polling Places Not Accessible to People with Disabilities

November 3, 2017
Government Study Finds Majority of U.S. Polling Places Not Accessible to People with Disabilities

For Immediate Release         
November 3, 2017

Contact: David Card    
202.408.9514 x122
[email protected]

WASHINGTON – Recently, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its Voters with Disabilities: Observations on Polling Place Accessibility and Related Federal Guidance report, detailing the results of GAO’s national survey of access to polling places for voters with disabilities. During the 2016 General Election, GAO found that an abysmal 17 percent of polling places surveyed had no potential impediments for people with disabilities.

Yet, GAO’s data is very telling, as the road to an electoral process accessible to all has taken two very divergent paths. The National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) commends tireless voting advocacy of our members, the national network of Protection & Advocacy (P&As) organizations. P&As have dramatically improved architectural access to polling places in states across the country. Despite these improvements, NDRN cautions that misguided attempts to address rising concerns around vote security are effectively blocking access to a private and independent ballot for all Americans.

Encouragingly, GAO found that 40 percent of polling places presented no barriers to voters with disabilities in their study of paths of travel from parking to the voting booth, a 13 percentage point improvement in polling place accessibility since the 2008 election cycle. Admittedly, progress has been slow. GAO found that only 16 percent of polling places were accessible in 2000, jumping to 27 percent by 2008. Yet, GAO’s longitudinal data points to an over 24 percentage point increase in accessible paths of travel at polling places between the 2008 and 2016 elections.

“This was a hard-fought victory for our P&As and the elections officials who were willing to partner with them to actively survey polling places and make needed changes,” said NDRN Executive Director Curt Decker, “but additional funding and support for the P&As work is critical to ensuring 100 percent accessibility in future elections.”

While significant progress has been made, GAO began to survey voting stations during the 2008 election cycle, during which 46 percent of voting booths presented at least one barrier to casting a private and independent ballot. In 2016, the number of inaccessible voting stations increased to an astounding 65 percent. Essentially, as elections authorities are increasingly cooperating with P&As to make polling places more accessible, mass confusion and a misguided public discourse on voter fraud and cybersecurity have led elections administrators to revert to paper-based voting systems. Just as NDRN and the P&As have warned, the increasing use of paper ballots without consulting disability rights advocates, is disenfranchising voters.

“Voters with disabilities can get in the door now, we just can’t cast our ballots. In the past several years, fewer states and jurisdictions are allowing P&As inside the polling place to help make voting more accessible, and this is exactly the result we feared,” added Decker, “We need funding for the P&As’ work and public support for accessible voting. It’s unconscionable that people with disabilities are denied the most fundamental right we have as Americans.”

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The National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) is the nonprofit membership organization for the federally mandated Protection and Advocacy (P&A) Systems and the Client Assistance Programs (CAP) for individuals with disabilities. Collectively, the Network is the largest provider of legally based advocacy services to people with disabilities in the United States.