Guest Blog: Making Polls Accessible - A Guide for Election Administrators
Addressing the 3 Most Common Accessibility Issues
Around the country this fall, Americans have more on their minds than pumpkin spice – local elections. For many, voting is a civic duty we remember twice a year. According to Rutgers University, though, 14% of voters with disabilities had difficulty voting in 2022, which is more than three times the rate of voters without disabilities.
As project manager of Indiana Disability Rights’ (IDR) voting rights initiatives, one of the best parts of my job is providing technical assistance to election administrators like you. The aim of these efforts is not only to help you understand basic legal requirements, but also how your efforts to minimize barriers positively impact voters’ experience. In this post I’ll share three of the most common accessibility issues you can solve at your polling places this election:
- Labeling van accessible parking spaces
- Addressing protruding objects
- Ensuring the availability of an accessible voting machine.
Before addressing specific accessibility requirements, I want to briefly cover the federal laws governing election accessibility. First, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) generally requires that polling places be physically accessible. In fact, IDR and similar organizations rely on the ADA Checklist for Polling Places when surveying voting sites for accessibility.
Second, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) requires each polling place to have at least one working voting machine that enables voters with disabilities to vote privately and independently. While it is courteous to be considerate of voters’ needs, it is also the law to provide disability-related reasonable accommodations to ensure an accessible election.
Van Accessible Parking
While many polling locations make accessible parking available, one of the most common recommendations IDR gives after visiting a polling site is to ensure van accessible spaces are labelled as such. Van accessible spaces are accessible parking spots with an adjacent access aisle. Because not all disabilities require the same accommodations, a standard accessible space may be perfect for someone who can independently walk short distances. Voters who need to deploy a lift or ramp to exit or enter a van, however, should have van accessible spaces reserved exclusively for their use. All accessible spaces should be located on the nearest route to the accessible poll site entrance.
Parking space labelled as van accessible with an adjacent access aisle on the closest route to the accessible entrance. (Photo credit: Indiana Disability Rights)
If your polling place does not have a designated van accessible space, you can print “Van Accessible” signs and post them for the election period. Page 4 of the ADA Checklist for Polling Places demonstrates how to use traffic cones to create an accessible parking space, if needed.
Another common accessibility barrier is protruding objects, such as fire extinguishers, water fountains, and coat racks, that are mounted to the wall and stick out more than four inches into the pathway voters travel. That these objects do not touch the ground makes them potentially hazardous; a voter using a white cane to navigate cannot detect the presence of protruding objects. To keep voters with limited vision safe, you and your poll workers can easily place a cone, chair, or other item directly underneath the object that protrudes into the walkway. This measure ensures that a white cane will detect a barrier and allow the voter to safely navigate around it.
Standard building objects, such as a fire extinguisher and AED box, that protrude into the pathway voters use to access the voting area pose a hazard to voters with limited vision. Additionally, there is a loose electrical cord visible which is a tripping hazard and should be relocated. (Photo credit: Indiana Disability Rights)
Page 8 of the ADA Checklist for Polling Places provides several examples of how to address common protruding objects.
Accessible Voting Machine
Finally, once voters are ready to cast their ballot, they may need to use the accessible voting machine. Therefore, it is important that the machine is turned on and has been tested to ensure functionality. The machine can be moved to a surface that works best for the voter, but should typically be positioned so that the highest operable part is no higher than 48 inches. At least one poll worker at each location should understand how to use the accessible voting machine. Voters with disabilities can benefit from the machine’s variety of functions, including the choosing a font size or having the ballot read aloud. The accessible machine is a critical tool that allows some voters with disabilities to vote privately and independently.
The accessible voting machine has settings that help people vote privately and independently. (Photo credit: Indiana Disability Rights)
Page 11 of the ADA Checklist for Polling Places discusses how to set-up an accessible voting area, including placement of the accessible voting machine.
From transportation to infrastructure to school funding, mayors, city councils, township boards, and school boards are responsible for some of the most influential decisions in our lives. As we enter the 2023 general election cycle, you can make a difference by ensuring your local election is accessible to all voters. By labelling van accessible parking spaces, addressing protruding objects, and ensuring an accessible voting machine is ready to accept votes, you ensure that voters have a say in local politics.
For more information about legal accessibility requirements, please review the ADA Checklist for Polling Places.
Finally, you can share this information with your peers and encourage them to make their elections accessible, too.
Blog Author, Kristin Dulaney, is a voter with an invisible mental health disability. She is the Special Projects Manager for Indiana Disability Rights. She is passionate about educating both election administrators and voters with disabilities about accessible voting practices. In her spare time, she plays board games and serves as the Vice Treasurer of her children’s school’s PTA.