I love voting. I know that might sound cheesy, but it’s true. In school and at home, it was always impressed upon me that voting and participating in the democratic process were important. I made sure I was registered to vote the moment I turned 18. I requested an absentee ballot if I was going to be out of town when an election was held. I still remember the first time I was able to participate in a presidential election, and how proud I felt to be able to make my decision in the voting booth.
I never imagined that I would have issues just getting into a polling place to cast my vote.
I’m going to fess up, up front: I was naïve. I’ve voted in school gymnasiums, lodge halls and church community rooms, and they’ve all been large, open spaces that have either been on ground floors or accessible via elevators. I’ve always seen people with various disabilities at the polls right alongside me. Thus, I honestly thought accessibility was a given. Yes, I said I was naïve, didn’t I?
To be fair, that’s how it’s supposed to be: Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires polling places to be accessible for voters with disabilities. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 requires each polling station to have at least one accessible voting booth or machine. Many states have additional laws on the books. However, any thoughts I might have had that those laws were being followed universally shattered as I stared down the staircase that prevented me from reaching my polling place in this year’s election.
Earlier this year, we had an election in my state (voting: it’s not just for November!). When I saw that I had been assigned to a new polling place, I was surprised. For many years, I’d voted in a huge, ground-level rec room in a strip mall. The rec room was still being used for elections, and only certain voters had been transferred elsewhere, which was puzzling. However, I still assumed that I’d simply show up, sign in and vote, as I’d always done. And then I arrived at my new polling place and received a very rude awakening.
It was on a quiet residential street. I wasn’t driving, but if I had been, it would have been difficult to find a place to park. It was very poorly marked; there were only two small “vote here” signs hung haphazardly from the trees. I never got to see what the actual polling place looked like, since it was down a cement flight of stairs I could not navigate.
I immediately surveyed the area for the ramp or elevator, because I assumed there had to be one… and I found nothing. My voter information booklet had no information on what to do if one’s polling place was inaccessible. Thus, I waited near the flight of stairs until someone emerged, and asked them if they would be kind enough to get a pollworker for me.
The young pollworker bounded up the stairs and scanned the area, completely ignoring me until I called attention to myself. “Oh, you need help?” When I explained I couldn’t do stairs, he disappeared into the polling place and returned with a form for me to sign. While the form did not ask me to specify my disability, I was required to certify that I was disabled and could not enter the polling area.
The pollworker ran up and down the stairs several more times to get forms and the ballot marker. Since there was no table or booth for me to use, I was forced to crouch awkwardly on the sidewalk, leaning against a low wall, to complete my ballot. The pollworker stood nearby, looking pointedly in the other direction. And while he did not rush me, I couldn’t help but feel as though I needed to fill out my ballot quickly so he could get back downstairs.
I walked away wearing my “I Voted” sticker, but I did not feel exhilarated, as I usually did after voting. Yes, I’d been able to cast my ballot, but it had been inconvenient and awkward for everyone involved. I also found myself seething at the fact that I’d been forced to fill out a form disclosing my status as someone with a disability in order to exercise my Constitutional right to vote at my designated polling place. Maybe it was for statistical purposes, but it still rubbed me the wrong way.
The irony was that I’d probably had an easy time. What if I’d needed one or more of the tools the polls were supposed to have for voters with disabilities? For instance, if I’d needed to use the audio ballot, could they have carried the headphones and the heavy listening device up those stairs? Would that have even been a possibility? What about someone who wasn’t able to fill out the ballot without something solid to lean on, like the little table in the voting booth? If someone could not walk long distances, how would the parking situation – that is, the almost complete lack of nearby parking – have affected them? If someone had wanted to vote from their vehicle, as curbside voting was supposed to have allowed, they would have had to double park. How would that have worked out on such a narrow street? The bottom line was that “curbside voting” did not even remotely equal an accessible polling place.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Disability Rights Section, curbside voting is supposed to be offered only as a last resort: “The only suitable polling site in a precinct might be an inaccessible building. In this rare circumstance, election administrators may provide ‘curbside voting’ to allow persons with disabilities to vote outside the polling place or in their cars.” There were numerous schools, houses of worship, lodge halls, stores, and other apartment buildings within a half mile of my home. Was I really to believe that every single one of those locations was inaccessible? Was it more likely that they’d simply considered the staircase to be inconsequential, since it would only “inconvenience” or exclude a minority of voters?
When I did some research, I learned that even though I’d never before personally encountered an inaccessible polling place, my experience had been the exception, not the norm. I was not able to find stats for the November 2016 election, but according to the U.S. Office of Government Accountability, a survey of polling places found that in 2008, only 27 percent of polling places were fully accessible to individuals with disabilities. Forty-five percent of inaccessible venues offered curbside voting. Even more disheartening: that was an improvement over the percentage of accessible venues in the 2000 election. According to a report from Rutgers University, people with disabilities have lower voting rates, and if more polling places were accessible, there potentially would have been more than three million additional votes in the 2012 election.
In order to report the inaccessible polling place I’d encountered, I called several numbers on the board of elections’ website; I got nothing but voicemail. I sent emails to the county board of elections, which were never answered. I also wrote a postal mail letter to the pertinent office in my state’s government, in which I clearly described the situation and provided photos of the staircase at the polling place. I’ve not received a reply. In addition to the ADA and HAVA, my state has very specific guidelines for the accessibility of polling places, but to date, nobody seems to care that those laws have been ignored.
I’m dreading the next election. If the polling place has not changed, I will be forced to switch to voting by mail. I’m not a fan of this because there’s a larger margin of error: ballots can always get lost en route. In addition, in order to ensure that one’s vote is counted by Election Day, one needs to send in the ballot at least a week beforehand. This gives one less time to research and consider the candidates and issues. Moreover, I shouldn’t have to vote by mail because my county can’t be bothered to comply with federal and state law and ensure that people with disabilities can access the polls.
There are some who will probably tell me that this isn’t a big deal, as long as I still get to vote somehow. They offered curbside voting, so I wasn’t excluded, correct? Yes, it’s better than nothing, but if you honestly feel that having to fill out extra forms and crouching on the sidewalk to vote is not a situation that should be remedied, I invite you to try it yourself and let us know just how much you like it. It’s also unacceptable to the U.S. Department of Justice, which writes, “People with disabilities must have the opportunity to be full participants in an integrated civic event. The ADA requires that public entities ensure that people with disabilities can access and use all of their voting facilities.”
It’s 2017. Accessibility of polling places is a matter of federal law. It shouldn’t be something that’s cast aside if it’s inconvenient or too hard to figure out.
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Thinkstock photo by bizoo_n