Access Still Iffy for Disabled Voters

Editor's note: This is part one of a two-part series on voting access.

Advocates for the disabled say that as much as 20 percent of polling places across the country won't be accessible to handicapped Americans on Election Day.

"It’s a fundamental right as an American to vote, and we have a very difficult time understanding how local officials can’t see that disabled people deserve access," said Clyde Terry, executive director of Granite State Independent Living (search) in New Hampshire, a private non-profit for the disabled.

Jim Dickson, vice president of governmental affairs with the American Association of People with Disabilities (search) in Washington D.C., told that he believes some, but not enough progress has been made since a 2001 federal study found that 28 percent of polling places posed one or two serious impediments to voting for disabled voters, whether it be a lack of wheelchair ramps or special ballots for the blind.

"I’m angered by it, I’m no longer surprised," said Dickson, who is blind. The study went on to say that an additional 56 percent of the polling places the Government Accounting Office (search) surveyed for the 2001 report entitled "Voters with Disabilities: Access to Polling Places and Alternative Voting Methods" had impediments, but offered curbside voting for those who could not walk into the voting booth. Sixteen percent posed no impediments at all.

"When I started working on this issue 14 years ago, I thought it would be a piece of cake, all we had to do was show people what accessibility means and away we go," Dickson said. "There has been a lot of progress, but there are places that say we just aren’t going to have progress here."

Under federal law, all polling places are supposed to provide the elderly and disabled equal access to voting. All states have guidelines on how to make this happen, though they vary widely, said the GAO report. The majority of states provide absentee ballots as an alternative to voting at a polling place, as well as curbside voting or optional polling places for those who request it, the report found.

But absentee ballots don’t help the blind, and alternative precincts have not always worked out, say advocates. Plus, many of the disabled want to vote in their neighborhoods with everyone else, and don’t want to vote by mail or at the curb.

"A lot of people want to be seen voting, they want to participate in the social, cultural and civic act of voting," Dickson said.

After the 2000 presidential election rocked election boards nationwide with a fear of recounts and charges of disenfranchisement, officials set to work. Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002, which demanded reforms and sent off money to the states to do it. One of those reforms insisted on full compliance with federal access laws by 2006.

"After 2000, every secretary of state, all of our members who have duties in addition to election administration said the most important thing they were going to do now is election reform," said Meredith Imwalle, spokeswoman for the National Association of Secretaries of State.

Under HAVA, states were given $13 million in 2003 for polling place accessibility improvements, she said. Much of this money, according to the states, went to funding extensive surveys, which assessed where problems existed. States also have access to additional federal grants for reforms.

Gary Bartlett, executive director of the Board of Elections in North Carolina, which is credited by advocates as being one of the most successful states in the area of accessibility reform, said in 1999 his state conducted surveys of all polling places' parking lots, walkways, doors and indoor facilities and got to work accordingly.

"Something that other states will find out is you cannot have instant overnight change, change is incremental and we are progressing in the right direction," said Bartlett. "We aren’t there yet, but by golly I think we are doing a good job."

Aside from funding, election officials say progress has been slower because while the majority of polling places may be in schools or other public buildings that already have access to the handicapped, others still reside in churches, private homes or semi-public buildings that are tougher to bring up to code.

"Some states are resistant to making places accessible when they don’t own them and they may decide not to be a polling place in a year or two from now," said Christina Galindo-Walsh, legal expert for the National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems, a coalition of all state federally-mandated disability advocacy centers.

Overall, progress in this area differs state by state, with places like Rhode Island being in full compliance already, and others, particularly in rural areas, lagging behind.

"We're not doing very well and we're not happy about that," complained Carol Westlake, executive director of the Tennessee Disability Coalition, an organization of 45 advocacy groups in the state.

Westlake said that aside from Nashville, she feels the rest of Tennessee is lagging and blames attitudes and bureaucracy.

"There is rhetoric in one direction and behavior in the other," she said. "The bureaucrats think it would be a nice thing to do, as long as its not too much trouble or too expensive. We've been having to fight that attitude."

Cara Harr, elections attorney for the state of Tennessee, said a complete survey of all polling places will be completed by March. But officials want to ensure that when the improvements are made, they are done right.

"We're not in a rush to get something done but not done correctly," she said.

But Galindo-Walsh says it's too late for most states to become fully compliant in time for November.

"A lot of our agencies have good working relationships with the states and they have been working in good faith with them to identify the issues," she said. "But I know that this year, again, polling places are not going to be accessible to people with disabilities. I know that for sure."