The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires all polling places to be accessible to people with disabilities. Yet, polling places and vote centers across the United States remain largely inaccessible to voters with disabilities.
Election administrators must include people with disabilities in their planning process to improve access and make the necessary changes to their polling locations to ensure equal access to the ballot box for all Americans.
Permanent remedies to polling places are generally more desirable because they will continue to provide access for all community members every day of the year, rather than just on Election Day. These remedies can include: installing a permanent ramp, installing power-assisted “push button” doors, installing or repairing an elevator, widening entryways, repairing broken sidewalks, adding curb cuts to sidewalks, paving or repaving parking areas, repainting parking areas to include accessible parking spaces, and/or adding permanent signage for accessible parking spaces and paths of travel. The cost of permanent remedies can be covered by the location serving as a polling place or the election authority for that jurisdiction.
Temporary remedies to polling places should be used if permanent fixes are not feasible. Although not designed to be permanent solutions, the following tools can be used to provide remedies on Election Day to improve accessibility. These tools can often be found in local hardware and home improvement stores or online for a reasonable cost.
If a polling place does not have any designated accessible parking, election officials, volunteers, or poll workers can either paint boundary lines, place traffic cones or use tape to mark off boundary lines for accessible parking. If parking is available at the polling place, accessible parking must be available and can be “created” at minimum cost.
To be ADA-compliant, accessible parking spaces must also have designated signage, and temporary signs can be made with little effort. Elections staff can paint a sign using poster board or cardboard with the international symbol of accessibility and tape it on a pole (if located in front of the accessible parking spot) or place the sign on a cone in front of the parking space. If the parking space is specifically for lift or ramp equipped van accessible parking, the sign must include the words “Van Accessible” somewhere as well.
If polling places have stairs with no available ramps, temporary ramps with edge protection can often make the location accessible. Ramps can provide access to sidewalks and building entrances. However, it is important to remember that portable ramps that are not permanently connected to the structure and without handrails cannot be used if the vertical rise is greater than six inches. Ramps with a vertical rise greater than six inches must have handrails.
Wedge ramps can also give access to people if thresholds are too high and if there are slight changes in surface level, such as big cracks in the sidewalks. Rubberized mats can also provide access over broken pavement that creates inaccessible surface-level changes, as well as over thresholds that exceed the one half inch ADA standard.
Many door handles are not accessible. If doorways do not have automatic door openers, doors should be openable by using one hand and should not require tight grasping, pinching, or twisting of the wrist. If this is the case, polling places can use “retro-fitted lever knobs.” These retrofitted levers fit over existing round knobs. However, if this is not an option, polling places can prop open doors on Election Day. Standard doorstops can be used to achieve this.
Water Fountains and Protruding Objects
Hallways at polling places might not always be fully accessible. For example, water fountains, fire extinguisher boxes, and display cases that stick out of the wall are not detectible for people who use white canes. However, election officials can place detectable objects, such as traffic cones or other skirting objects to make these protruding objects detectable for voters who are blind or low vision.
Permanent and temporary remedies should be deployed to prevent closure and relocation of polling places to the greatest extent possible.
Relocating Polling Places
If a jurisdiction needs to relocate a polling site, election officials should work with the community to locate the best option. Facilitating communication with the voters and working with community leaders and groups can lead to the best solution, prevent unintended hardship on voters, and reduce overall costs. Disability rights organizations and people with disabilities, especially if a polling place is being relocated because of ADA concerns, must be brought to the table. Protection and Advocacy (P&A) agencies can provide a wealth of knowledge and support to jurisdictions seeking to achieve access for all.
Consolidating Polling Places
Consolidation of polling places can be an appropriate remedy in some cases. For example, two polling places in immediate proximity, such as a community’s middle school and elementary school, may make sense to combine if one location is significantly more accessible than the other. Of course, the surviving polling place must have the appropriate capacity to safely absorb the new influx of voters. Extreme consolidations, i.e. pairing 40 polling places down to two, is typically not recommended unless all 40 polling places were in very close proximity and the remaining two are being used as vote centers – an admittedly unlikely scenario.
“Accessible” Poll Workers
Even the most ideal polling places are only as accessible as the poll workers that run them on Election Day. With minimal training and high expectations for job performance, providing effective and timely accommodation to voters with disabilities can be daunting for polling place staff. Jurisdictions that have the capacity should consider a dedicated poll worker whose mission is to ensure equal access for all at the polls. In other words, every polling place should assign a poll worker whose main Election Day duty is to support voters with disabilities who might be unaware of the accessibility features available to cast a ballot and their rights for accommodation, or who otherwise need assistance. A poll worker with this specialization can also ensure that the polling place is set up to be fully compliant with the ADA and enact any necessary same-day remedies. Although poll workers are frequently in short supply, the “accessible” poll worker can perform regular job functions in addition to serving as a specialist.
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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 P&A/CAP Network is the largest provider of legally based advocacy services to people with disabilities in the United States.